By Steven Erlanger
Sept. 22, 2018
BRUSSELS — President Trump seems determined to upend 70 years of established American foreign policy, especially toward Europe, which he regards as less ally than competitor.
The Trump turnabout has set off a fervent search on both sides of the Atlantic for answers to hard questions about the global role of the United States, and what a frazzled Europe can and should do for itself, given a less reliable American partner.
The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, speaking before a conference of all Germany’s ambassadors last month, argued for a stronger European foreign and defense policy in the face of a suddenly uncertain future.
“The rules-based international order” is eroding in a world where “nothing can be taken for granted any more in foreign policy,” he said.
As a measure of just how cross-fertilized the thinking has become, Mr. Maas, a Socialist, cited the conservative American thinker Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and his forthcoming book, “The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World.”
His is one of several new books to take on the issues. In Mr. Kagan’s view, the United States’ retreat as the enforcer of the order it created after World War II is returning the world to its natural state — a dark jungle of competing interests, clashing nationalism, tribalism and self-interest.
“The liberal world order established by the United States a little over seven decades ago is collapsing,” Mr. Kagan writes, a function of American exhaustion with global burdens that began before Mr. Trump was elected and was one of the reasons for his victory.
But as a tired America pulls back from tending what Mr. Kagan calls “the garden” of the liberal order — an exceptional 70 years of relative peace and free trade, “a historical anomaly” made possible by U.S. leadership — the dangers are considerable, especially for Europe, he argues.
Already strained by populism and identity politics, Europe is in danger of returning to the strife that produced totalitarianism in the 1930s, he warns.
“The crucial issue is not the Middle East or even Russia, and it may not even be China,” Mr. Kagan said. “The big game is what it’s been for over a century. If we lose Europe, if we send Europe back to its normal condition, it’s over.”
But his prescription — that the United States suck it up and understand that it must remain the indispensable guarantor — is hardly universally shared at a moment when many appear sympathetic to Mr. Trump’s complaint that America’s allies do not do enough for collective defense.
Julianne Smith, a former adviser to Vice President Biden and now a visiting fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, recently traveled the United States talking about foreign policy.
“If in Washington the bipartisan view is do more, outside people ask if we’ve been too ambitious,” she said.
“We’re in a situation where the public doesn’t see the evidence to support Kagan’s arguments,” she said. “Congress is not there, the media is not there, the public is not there, and business is there only sometimes.”
Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University argues in his own forthcoming book, “The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy,” that the United States should do less in the world, and a lot more selectively.
Part of the “realist” school, Mr. Walt says that since the end of the Cold War, the United States has engaged in a series of expensive, largely unnecessary and ultimately failed efforts to remake nations in its own unusual image.
The metaphor of a garden “implies our role is benign and benevolent, when actually we’ve been blowing up a lot of stuff,” he said.
“If we go running around the world on idealistic crusades, and some go badly, as they will, then public support for an activist foreign policy will decline.”
Tomas Valasek, who runs Carnegie Europe, a research institution, considers that view too pessimistic.
“I agree that it’s not inevitable that the U.S. will always play the same role, but I disagree that mayhem necessarily follows,” he said. “The U.S. has changed Europe’s security culture,” making Europeans more conscious of the need to defend themselves.
“It’s not the 1930s,” Mr. Valasek said. “There are ugly forces at work in Europe but not of the same kind, and I don’t share Kagan’s assumption that European elites will fail to respond.”
“We must make clear to the American people that it’s in their enlightened self-interest to stay engaged, and that others are stepping up, paying and doing their share,” he added.
The shift in American attitudes “toward a post-imperial role” began before Mr. Trump, with the failure of the Iraq war, noted Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s Institute of International Affairs and an adviser to E.U. foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini.
But for her, “the silver lining in Europe is that even the current dodgy leaders realize we’re all very small.”
“There is a growing realization that a stronger Europe and European Union are a necessity, whatever the faults,” she said.
Daniel W. Drezner, who teaches international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, argues that “Americans are sick of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” but that both Mr. Kagan and Mr. Walt are wrong about American public opinion.
“Ask them about trade, immigration and alliances, and it turns out that Trump has made liberal internationalism great again,” he said, with Americans favoring international trade and alliances with European and Asian democracies.
Indeed, surveys show that American attitudes on trade and mutual alliances are the most positive in 40 years, said Ivo H. Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“Americans are not sick of foreign engagement but of stupid, endless foreign wars,” he said.
Mr. Daalder and James M. Lindsay also have a forthcoming book, “The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership,” describing the impact of what they consider the greatest shift in American foreign policy since the retreat from Europe after World War I.
Like Mr. Kagan, they see dire consequences. But they also argue that even if Mr. Trump won’t tend the liberal world order, America’s nine most democratic allies can do more to preserve it — in both global trade and security.
Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Daalder call for a “G-9” of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Canada and the European Union to act more boldly in their own interest, as they are already doing on trade.
Mr. Kagan wants to influence those choices. Despite mistakes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, retreat in the name of “reality” is naïve and ahistoric, he argues.
“After decades of living within the protective bubble of the liberal world order, we have forgotten what the world ‘as it is’ looks like,” he said. “To believe that the quarter-century after the Cold War has been a disaster is to forget what disaster means in world affairs.”