While forecasting how a war between the United States and China could develop, P.W. Singer and August Cole suggest in their excellent novel Ghost Fleet that America’s European allies might ignore NATO’s Article V commitments and make a deal with China to save their blood and treasure. An outright transatlantic breakup isn’t imminent today, but some European countries may eventually try to balance the US and China geopolitically. After all, if the US pursues America First policies, Europeans may pursue similar Italy First, France First, Germany First, or Britain (or Scotland or England) First policies. Sometimes these policies may benefit America’s national interests. Other times they won’t. And while European countries are weaker than the United States and China, they can still cause havoc the same way the fragile Austro-Hungarian Empire caused havoc for the formidable British Empire, as Sumantra Maitra mentioned in these pages.
From an American foreign policy perspective, European countries’ shifting geopolitical role could become a major headache, just as in the last century the continent posed problems for the US. So below are five trends to watch this year to monitor if, how, and why these countries may pose problems for the US.
Reminiscent of the Ghost Fleet warning, China has made inroads into Europe and attempted to fragment European unity. For instance, last year Italy ignored American and European concerns and joined Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, even after the European Union labeled China a “strategic competitor.” Later this year in Leipzig, Germany, the EU and China will have a summit where they will discuss an investment treaty. What the European countries say during the summit about China’s human rights record, or which countries remain silent, can signify Beijing’s strength. Critically, whether or how European countries allow cheaper Huawei equipment into their 5G cellular networks may indicate how they will balance their relations with Beijing and Washington, especially after US intelligence agencies warned them about Huawei.
Brexit Drama Isn’t Over
After Boris Johnson’s general election victory last month, the United Kingdom will officially leave the European Union on January 31. But instead of marking the end of Brexit drama, this date marks the beginning of Brexit Phase 2 because now the UK must negotiate a trade deal with the EU. Officially, a deal must be reached by December 31, 2020, or the UK will start trading with the EU on World Trade Organization (WTO) terms. Both sides would then likely place much higher tariffs on goods crossing their borders. But the EU and others expect the UK will want a complicated trade deal that usually takes years to agree upon, so the deadline may change. Boris Johnson wants a deal faster and may play hardball with Brussels. Because of the Tories’ majority in Parliament, he likely has the votes to enact (or credibly threaten) a “No Deal Brexit” at the end of 2020. Who blinks first in this standoff is worth watching.
The final UK-EU trade arrangement may have ramifications for any future US-UK trade deal. Last year President Donald Trump warned that Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal precludes a trade deal with the US. But recently the administration has expressed more optimism, and this week British finance minister Sajid Javid indicated the UK wants a harder Brexit, which Trump would like. Though, one argument suggests that aligning more closely with the EU and forgoing a US trade deal may be in Johnson’s political interest. Not only would this move allow the UK to reach a quick EU trade deal by the end of 2020 as promised, but it would also allow the prime minister to focus on Britain’s more pressing needs and boost market confidence in the short term. Even if a broad trade deal with the US (as opposed to a simpler, less radical deal) benefited the UK more in the long term, voters may not reward Johnson for eventualities that don’t boost their paychecks immediately. He might also quash the Scottish independence movement and preserve the union if he can undermine the nationalists’ argument that Brexit radically changed Scotland’s relationship with EU. So while the US might expect the UK to move firmly into its geopolitical orbit post-Brexit, the reality may be more complicated. (For another indicator, watch what Johnson decides about allowing Huawei into the UK’s 5G network.)
US-EU Trade War?
Now that the US and China have signed a phase one trade deal, President Trump may target Europe, which he says takes advantage of America and is worse than Beijing. Last year the WTO gave Washington permission to retaliate against European countries for subsidizing Airbus, and the administration responded with tariffs, including a 25 percent duty on Scotch and Irish whiskeys. The Trump administration this week postponed a trade war with France over its new digital tax. But the president reiterated his seriousness about placing tariffs on European cars and auto parts. As the administration shows disdain for the supranational EU, officials in Brussels haven’t given in to US demands. How Europe may respond to new tariffs or how a trade war could affect overall transatlantic relations in 2020 will be worth watching.
Germany Pivots Further from the US
Last month a poll found that 41 percent of Germans said Donald Trump was the most dangerous world leader, more than those who chose Kim Jong-un (17 percent), Vladimir Putin (8 percent), Ali Khamenei (8 percent), and Xi Jinping (7 percent). Meanwhile, American presidents for decades have complained about Germany, especially for its underfunded and ill-equipped military; even the German government admits its military has problems. One sore spot for the Trump administration has been the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will allow Russia to deliver more natural gas directly to Germany through the Baltic Sea. The project is a particular problem for Ukraine and risks creating an environment where Germany can ignore Eastern Europeans’ concerns and cut deals with Russia. In 2019 the US Congress passed and President Trump implemented sanctions against companies financing Nord Stream 2. While US sanctions slowed construction, the pipeline is expected to be completed by 2021.
In response to US sanctions for Nord Stream 2, Germany called upon Europeans to create a financial firewall to protect their firms. Because the US dollar is integral to global trade and most international transactions are cleared in New York, America can use sanctions to project power. This tool is particularly attractive when the president is averse to using military power. So countries like Germany, Russia, and China are looking for alternatives to the dollar to avoid US pressure. How this trend develops in 2020 and what role Germany plays could have implications for American foreign policy for decades.
Meanwhile, the US is stuck for now in Germany. While some call for the American military to pull out of the country and stop protecting the NATO ally, many of the US assets there help America project power globally and serve as an unsinkable aircraft carrier near strategic areas. This month when Iranian missiles struck US assets, including living quarters, at Ain al-Assad base in Iraq, some wounded American service members were flown to Landstuhl, Germany, for rapid treatment. The US has used this military hospital in Germany for decades, and now the US is building a new military hospital in Germany that will cost roughly $990 million. When it opens around 2024, it will be the largest military hospital ever built outside the US. So pulling the US military out of Germany and into another European country may not be as simple or cheap as some might hope, and America’s need for these assets may complicate US-Germany relations if the allies drift apart.
Following the US on the Iran Deal
Predictions that World War III was imminent after a US airstrike killed Iran’s Qassem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport were premature. Now the decades-old conflict between the US and Iran appears to be in a momentary pause after Iran’s missile strike on Ain al-Assad base in Iraq wounded but didn’t kill any Americans. However, European countries have moved reluctantly in Washington’s direction in relation to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran Deal. Last week Germany, France, and the United Kingdom sent Iran a joint letter triggering the dispute settlement mechanism after Iran breached the agreement. This letter set off a sequence that could kill the Iran Deal. Agreeing with the US about problems with the JCPOA, Boris Johnson has even suggested creating a new “Trump Deal” to end the standoff. But for now this episode demonstrates just how weak European soft power is when the US flexes its military and economic power. While other trends above point to some divergence with the US and fracturing within Europe, the Iran dilemma shows how the US can still corral, coerce, and cajole its allies, at least in 2020.
Nothing New under the Sun
Of course, there are other trends in Europe readers should monitor—including spreading populism, rising anti-Semitism, and declining European socialism. But from an American foreign policy perspective, how and why Europe may shift away from the United States geopolitically can prove to be most serious, and policymakers should consider how to respond wisely.
Yet policymakers should also remember Ecclesiastes’ wisdom: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Transatlantic troubles and threats of breakup have occurred for decades. In 1967 Charles de Gaulle kicked out NATO, forcing Americans to abandon airbases and causing other problems. And despite America’s special relationship with Britain, Winston Churchill bickered with Dwight D. Eisenhower after the Second World War, and later the US placed economic sanctions on the UK during the Suez Crisis.
So yes, the United States has to be involved in Europe because European disunity has caused catastrophes for America and could cause problems in the future. But turmoil between the US and Europe is nothing new and remains manageable.