President Donald Trump is back in Washington after his first foreign visits, beginning in Saudi Arabia and ending with a tour of Europe. While the controversial commander-in-chief could have boosted his presidency by promising America’s unyielding support in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing, which has been claimed by ISIS, he instead stuck to his usual playbook of criticizing NATO members for allegedly under-spending on defense. Between that and the bone-crushing handshake he gave to France’s new president, likely in a crude attempt to intimidate, Trump left a bad taste in Europe’s mouth.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has responded to Trump’s recent European visit with sharp words, declaring that the continent can “no longer rely” on others- a clear jab at the United States. President Trump’s badgering seems to be pushing NATO allies away, and the results could be catastrophic for his re-election chances in 2020. Between allies questioning whether or not to continue to share intelligence with the U.S. following Trump’s sharing of such secrets with the Russians and Trump’s belligerent behavior on the stump, America’s foreign policy leadership is eroding quickly. Though not as dramatic as the ongoing Russia scandal, the growing Euro-American rift could be just as harmful to the president’s administration.
Donald Trump needs Europe, primarily for trade and to help combat ISIS. With his administration declaring that it will “annihilate” the terrorist organization, it seems apparent that the U.S. will be increasing its military presence in the Middle East once again. Traditionally, American activities in the Middle East required large bases in Europe, as well as considerable allied assistance. Although the U.S. has not asked for a “coalition of the willing” to help defeat ISIS in the same way it sought allies for both the Gulf War and the Iraq War, it stands to reason that the U.S. will be looking for some war buddies to share the load and provide some positive public relations.
After badmouthing NATO allies, the U.S. is unlikely to receive many offers of assistance in fighting in Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, that is the best case scenario. The worst case scenario involves European allies requesting the removal of U.S. forces and bases from their territory, forcing the U.S. to seek new operating centers to conduct its Middle Eastern war against ISIS. Also, European intelligence agencies could stop sharing tips gleaned from radicals in the region, forcing the U.S. to drastically expand its own human intelligence gathering.
When it comes to fighting ISIS, we need Europe’s help on the intelligence front. Due to Europe’s proximity to the Middle East, radicals have been able to move back and forth between the regions. While this has created a security threat for Europe, it has also helped provide a source of intelligence for the United States. When radicals returning from Iraq and Syria are arrested in Europe, interrogations can funnel invaluable intel to the U.S. If the rift between America and Western Europe grows, this funnel of real-time, on-the-ground intel of ISIS’ operations will be reduced…or stopped entirely.
Even if NATO allies are not spending big bucks or putting boots on the ground, they provide lots of information we need to fight ISIS more efficiently and successfully. If Europe forces the U.S. to go it alone against ISIS, especially without the use of European military bases, the war becomes longer and bloodier.
A rift between the U.S. and its NATO allies also provides an opening for Russia to begin courting Western Europe. Disgusted with Trump’s bullying, NATO allies like France and Germany may actually be willing to talk about a regional defense network with Russia itself. Russia, after all, is also involved in the fight against ISIS and is a lot closer to the Middle East than the United States. While Western Europe shows little love for Vladimir Putin’s wily aggressions today, Moscow’s willingness to put boots on the ground against ISIS, plus its petroleum exports to Europe, give the former superpower some political leverage.
As the Russia scandal drives Trump’s previously-pro-Putin administration away from Moscow, and Trump’s odiousness drives away NATO allies as well, an opportunity exists for a shift of alliances. Worried that the U.S. will not take a tough line against Russia, and will continue badgering them for more boosts in military spending, nations of Western Europe may simply hedge their bets by strengthening ties with Moscow. After all, if the U.S. isn’t going to help you beat Russia, why not join Russia [in a geopolitical alliance]?
If NATO allies become standoffish toward the U.S. and begin showing signs of friendship toward Russia by 2020, expect the Democrats to have a field day portraying Trump as the buffoon who hastily destroyed the most vaunted military alliance in history. It will be tough for the GOP to argue differently, and that party will have gone from being seen as tough on terror (and Russia) to being seen as soft and ineffectual.