What Europe Needs to Hear from Trump

U.S. and Georgian service members in a joint military exercise in May, part of Georgia’s training for its contribution of a light infantry company to the NATO Response Force. Zurab Kurtsikidze/European Pressphoto Agency
U.S. and Georgian service members in a joint military exercise in May, part of Georgia’s training for its contribution of a light infantry company to the NATO Response Force. Zurab Kurtsikidze/European Pressphoto Agency

America owes Donald J. Trump an open mind and a chance to lead, Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday. So does Europe.

But understandably, Europeans are deeply worried about some of the views expressed by Mr. Trump during the campaign. This moment of trans-Atlantic uncertainty must end quickly. It is essential for the president-elect to explain his plans without delay. How will he square the circle between strengthening America’s global role while at the same time reducing America’s foreign commitments — both goals he has announced? If he really means what he says about the value of NATO (or lack thereof), what exactly does he intend to do?

Both Europe and Mr. Trump need to switch now from campaign mode to policy mode. Instead of waiting for the Trump inaugural speech, Europe should enumerate its own policy expectations and demonstrate how much the United States can continue to benefit from a close partnership with it.

First, European allies expect a clear commitment to the trans-Atlantic security partnership. Mr. Trump should reaffirm America’s security guarantee in NATO, never questioned by any president since its founding in 1949. As a 2016 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has shown, a vast majority of Americans continue to believe in the value of their country’s alliances and partnerships. Even 60 percent of Trump supporters said they wanted to increase or at least maintain the commitment to NATO.

On this basis, Mr. Trump might then also be able to engage directly with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and try to bring about a new détente. Europe would certainly not be opposed to a renewed push for summit diplomacy. But these efforts must not compromise the security of our Eastern European allies.

Not reassuring the Europeans would be tantamount to pulling the rug out from under the NATO alliance. Historically, it has always been cheaper for the United States to actively underwrite European security instead of leaving Europe largely on its own. President-elect Trump can and should push for more equitable burden-sharing. The Europeans may not be easy partners; even Barack Obama often got frustrated with Europe’s indecisiveness and free-riding tendencies. But wherever Mr. Trump looks, he will not find better partners to work with to secure America’s strategic interests and to serve as force multipliers for its military power.

But Europe shouldn’t wait for Mr. Trump. Europeans need to come up with a strategy of their own to engage him, but also to hedge against a possible shift in American grand strategy. The challenges are tremendous — and it is in Europe’s self-interest to speak with one voice, and to be a more credible and capable actor in regional and global crisis management. For that, Europe needs to invest more in civilian and military capabilities, and to start pooling and sharing defense assets more comprehensively.

Second, Europe expects the Trump administration to support and propose initiatives to build an even stronger trans-Atlantic economy. Mr. Trump’s predecessors, Democrats and Republicans alike, have built a liberal economic world order, based on the idea of open and free trade. Mr. Trump should reassure the world that he will not question this fundamental strategy. Or would he be willing to risk a new trade war, letting loose a cascade of protectionist measures at the end of which we will all be worse off?

European companies would not steal blue-collar jobs from the United States. Nor would Europeans engage in dumping. They are partners, not opponents, in securing a fair global trade system. Without a vibrant trans-Atlantic economic exchange, “making America great again” will remain an unreachable goal.

Finally, some of Mr. Trump’s campaign comments have been unacceptable for those of us who believe in the open and truthful exchange of ideas for the greater good. In Europe, we have long looked to the United States as a model democracy, the shining city upon a hill. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany found the right words when congratulating Mr. Trump on his victory: Enumerating the list of shared values that bind the United States and Europe, she offered her cooperation — “based on these values.” Leading the free world, even for Mr. Trump, will not work in the absence of a clear commitment to these values.

Without a strong trans-Atlantic alliance under responsible American leadership, the free world as we know it may soon no longer exist. We all live in difficult and dangerous times. Our adversaries are waiting for us to become disunited, disoriented and thus more vulnerable. Clearly, there is no job in the world that comes with more global responsibility than that of president of the United States.

During his campaign, Donald Trump used the slogan “Make America Great Again.” But securing American greatness will not succeed without the United States’ best allies, many of whom are now concerned about America’s future foreign policy. Mr. President-elect, I am happy to invite you to present your vision at the Munich Security Conference, where key trans-Atlantic leaders will meet in mid-February. For decades, the United States has served as the main stabilizing force in the world and has greatly benefited from a stable order. As you set out to “make America great again,” we trust you will not make the world afraid again.

Wolfgang Ischinger is the chairman of the Munich Security Conference and teaches at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. He served as Germany’s ambassador to the United States from 2001 to 2006.

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