What Should Drive Future U.S. Policy Toward Europe and the EU?


John F. Phillips

American foreign policy is at a crossroads, particularly with respect to Europe. From NATO to trade to cybersecurity, the past four years of President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach to Europe and the European Union (EU) has created a level of distrust that hasn’t been seen since the creation of the post World War II international system.

As we move on from the Trump years, it is imperative that the United States reengage with Europe and the EU in a way that allows the U.S. to pursue its interests while at the same time rebuilding trust. It can be done.

In order to rebuild the relationship, the United States must pursue an approach that emphasizes the definition of American and mutual priorities, focuses on guiding rather than dictating, and constructively engaging with Russia.

Set Priorities That Define The Future Relationship

President Trump deserves credit for trying to hold Europe more accountable for its behavior, particularly with respect to mutual defense and NATO. Europe must recognize that this is no longer the Europe of 1947.

That being said, it has never been really clear what American policy priorities are with respect to Europe and the EU. If the relationship is to grow, the United States must decide what its priorities and interests are and develop a strategy that allows the U.S. to pursue these priorities and interests in a manner that respects European interests and is mutually beneficial to both sides. The relationship can no longer be purely transactional.

What might those interests and priorities be? Below is a list, in no particular order, that might be a great place to start.

  • Countering China’s increased political and economic influence;
  • Energy policy vis a vis Russia;
  • Common defense policy for Europe and the EU;
  • Future role and structure of NATO;
  • Climate change;
  • Technology and cyberspace;
  • Trade agreements;
  • Brexit fallout;
  • Integration of Russia into the European community.

The United States Must Guide, Not Dictate

Whether one wants to admit it or not, the United States is no longer in a position to dictate policy to its allies in Europe, or anywhere else for that matter. Given the increased influence of China in the economic and political affairs of the EU, the reliance of the EU, particularly Germany, on Russia for its current energy needs, and the emerging economic and political strength and influence of the EU as a whole, the U.S. needs to step away from its current transactional approach to foreign policy and embrace an approach that emphasizes the pursuit of common goals and objectives while at the same time protecting and furthering American interests.

The U.S. must work in concert with the EU and other nations to develop common strategies to tackle mutually inclusive goals and objectives based on individual and collective policy priorities. This approach increases the potential to create win/win outcomes that further collective interests, creating increased mutual respect between the U.S. and Europe while, at the same time, furthering American foreign policy objectives.

Constructive Engagement With Russia

It is time to acknowledge that the United States, in some ways, blew its victory in the Cold War. Instead of helping Russia integrate into the international community, especially Europe, the United States chose to take a “we won, you lost” victory lap. This was greatly resented by the Russians and led to the rise of Vladimir Putin and the current Russian nationalism that drives his efforts to undermine the western democracies.

There is an old saying that one should keep friends close and enemies closer, I think that approach should influence the American and EU approach to Russia. Constructively engaging with Russia could help them move away from nostalgic nationalism and lead to more extensive cooperation.

That is not to say that the United States or the EU should turn a blind eye toward Russian attempts to undermine the solidarity of the EU and the relationship between Europe and the United States. Russia needs to be held accountable for the many actions that it has taken to undermine democratic values in the United States and Europe, especially the direct meddling in elections. It also needs to be held responsible and held accountable for creating political and military instability in the former republics of the old Soviet Union.

That being said, the current approach of economic sanctions and political pressure has not worked. It is time for the United States and the EU to recognize that Russia is a legitimate actor in the international arena and should be treated as a peer rather than an adversary. Hold them closer rather than push them away. Offer real incentives, especially in terms of real political and economic integration into the European community. This can be accomplished in a manner that encourages Russia to be more responsible and helpful in terms of mutual cooperation. Russia has historically craved this acceptance. A Russia that is politically and economically stable only benefits Europe and the United States.

As the United States moves on from President Trump and his “America First” transactional foreign policy, there is a real opportunity to reset its relationship with Europe and the EU. A foreign policy based on trust, mutual respect, and understanding can lead to win/win outcomes that protect American interests and bring about a closer and more respectful relationship with Europe and the EU.

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