Last month, Vice President Michael Pence went to Europe to reassure America’s allies. They were reeling from President Trump’s repeated attacks against the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), his expressions of admiration for Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, and his endorsement of an isolationist “America First” foreign policy. Pence’s message to European leaders was different. At the Munich security conference, Pence — together with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis — reassured Europe that the United States fully supports NATO and will stand with it against a resurgent Russia. Pence then traveled to Brussels to meet with President of the Council of the European Union Donald Tusk to offer his unqualified support for the E.U.
But this view is under direct attack by the Breitbart faction in the White House. Led by Stephen Bannon and including controversial advisors such as Sebastian Gorka, they are intent on dismantling central pillars of the liberal international order including free trade and U.S. partnership with European democracies. The Breitbart faction competes for the president’s ear and seems to be running an alternative foreign policy through a newly created “Strategic Initiatives Group,” a kind shadow National Security Council in the White House. So, even as Pence was in Brussels declaring the United States’ “steadfast and enduring” commitment to the E.U., Bannon was informing German diplomats in Washington that the White House viewed the E.U. as a flawed construct and preferred to deal with European countries on a bilateral basis.
The problem for our allies is that the president himself seems to lean toward the Breitbart camp. Trump did offer some conciliatory words on NATO in his address to a joint session of Congress and, in a recent interview, he said of the E.U., “I'm totally in favor of it. I think it’s wonderful, if they’re happy.” But Trump has sent a very different message with other recent statements and actions, such as hosting dinners with Brexit champion Nigel Farage, floating a noted Eurosceptic as potential ambassador to the E.U., attacking the E.U. as a vehicle for German dominance, arguing that the U.K. was smart to leave and that others will follow them out the door, labeling NATO as obsolete, and suggesting that NATO members need to pay up if they expect the U.S. to respect its defense commitments. To our European partners, it looks as though Trump has broken with more than six decades of bipartisan support for European integration.
Then there is Trump’s predilection for autocrats. He has praised Hungary’s autocratic, anti-immigrant Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and invited him to the White House. Likewise, he invited the Czech Republic’s Islamophobic President Milos Zeman to Washington and told him, “You’re my type of guy.” These politicians are right-wing nationalists who oppose immigration, multiculturalism and multilateral institutions such as the European Union. Second, like Trump, they share a curious affection for Vladimir Putin. Trump’s support for Putin, who is a sworn enemy of both NATO and the E.U., has left many European leaders feeling that they are on their own between two hostile powers: Russia and the United States. European Council President Tusk reflected these concerns in a letter to E.U. leaders, when he listed the new U.S. administration as a threat to the European Union — alongside Russia, China and radical Islam.
The United States’ closest allies are worried that the Trump administration will destroy the post-war global order. They have good reason to be concerned. American lawmakers who value our international alliances, and do not want to see Trump replace them with a new foreign policy based on ties with Putin’s Russia and other corrupt autocracies, must do all in their power to resist. Democrats will do what they can as the minority party, but Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate are best positioned to stop Trump.
Some mainstream Republicans, like Senators John McCainJohn McCainKasich: 'I think political parties are on their way out' Five fights for Trump’s first year Trump wall faces skepticism on border MORE and Marco RubioMarco RubioTop Trump officials push border wall as government shutdown looms Rubio defends Trump: 'This whole flip-flop thing is a political thing' Rubio: Shutdown would have 'catastrophic impact' on global affairs MORE, have already begun pushing back, calling on Trump to change his Russia policies. Bipartisan intelligence committee investigations into Trump’s Russia ties must continue, and Congress must subpoena his tax returns to explore his business links with Russia — as Republican Senator Susan Collins recently suggested would be possible. These investigations are needed not only to uncover the truth about Russian election meddling, but also because these links may help explain Trump’s rejection of the US’s traditional alliances.
Pending the outcome of these investigations, if the foreign policy moderates in the administration wish to reassure our NATO allies and preserve the international order constructed over the past 70 years, they must take concrete actions to show that they, and not the Breitbart faction, are guiding American foreign policy. First, they must work to oust Bannon from the National Security Council and make clear that U.S. security strategy is in the hands of the traditionalists who see NATO as a pillar of U.S. security. Second, they must ensure that Trump appoints ambassadors to NATO, the E.U., and leading European states who support the institutions of the transatlantic alliance. Third, while Trump may continue to criticize European states for failing to live up to NATO’s military spending target, the U.S. must make it clear that the Article 5 collective security commitment remains unconditional. Finally, the U.S. must coordinate action on Russia sanctions with the E.U. and European partners, in order to present a united front.
Europe will not be persuaded by fine words coming out of one half of a divided White House. Only actions will convince Europeans that the Trump administration has not sacrificed decades of transatlantic cooperation at the altar of Stephen Bannon’s apocalyptic foreign policy. Otherwise, America’s allies will have to assume that so long as Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump's Hollywood Walk of Fame star defaced Report: Senate's Russia probe understaffed Trump won't comment on Le Pen's advancement in French election MORE remains President, they lack a reliable partner in the White House, and our transatlantic partnership is on ice.
R. Daniel Kelemen is the Jean Monnet Chair in European Union Politics and Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, where he previously served as Director of the Center for European Studies. His most recent book, Eurolegalism: The Transformation of Law and Regulation in the European Union, won the 2012 Best Book Award from the European Union Studies Association.
Mitchell Orenstein is the Chair of the Department of Slavic Language and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. His first book, Out of the Red: Building Capitalism and Democracy in Postcommunist Europe, won the 1997 Gabriel A. Almond Award from the American Political Science Association.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.