CHENNAI: US President Donald Trump’s move to pull America out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, despite proof that Tehran has fully complied with its terms, could be a landmark point in the twenty-first century international politics. The transatlantic alliance, hitherto the principal guarantor of European security and stability, is under unprecedented strain.
The US pullout from the deal has not only damaged Washington’s credibility beyond repair, but also, it has seriously ruptured America’s ties with its European allies, who had mounted a tireless campaign to persuade the US President to keep his country in the deal. Two European leaders –German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron – as well as the British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, took time to travel to Washington recently, in a bid to impress upon President Trump, the expediency of staying in the deal, despite its flaws.
To their collective chagrin, Trump, anchored firmly in his conviction that the deal doesn’t serve America’s long-term interests, decided to do what he thought was the best for his country.
But what Trump thought was best for America is not what the Europeans think is the best for them. Europe’s attitude to the nuclear deal was best summarized by President Macron who argued, "This agreement may not address all concerns and very important concerns. But we should not abandon it without having something substantial and more substantial instead."
Europeans leaders have stressed on the fact that Iran is “fully compliant” with the deal, and hence, it is irrational to scrap it, which, if nothing, has at least augmented Iran’s break-out time to obtain a nuclear weapon from three months to one year.
Europe’s “task of the future”
Transatlantic unity has been under attack ever since Trump took oath. In the past, there have been differences between America and its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. However, no US president in the post-World War Two era has set himself to the task of pursuing America’s interests unilaterally to the extent of shaking Europe’s confidence in the US-led international order.
In fact, even before becoming the President, certain remarks made by Trump had opened a new debate on the future of European security and the US role in it.
His constant tirade against America’s NATO allies for not doing enough to take care of their own security had left them confused and anxious.
While campaigning for the White House, Trump even said that the US fulfilling its commitments under Article 7 of the NATO charter – hailed as the “bedrock” of the alliance -- is contingent on whether the NATO countries, whom he derided as “free riding allies”, are “paying their bills properly.”
These comments, and his open advocacy of an “America first” approach to foreign affairs, no doubt, has shaken the sense of common destiny that cemented the transatlantic alliance.
It’s no wonder then that the European leaders welcomed Trump’s election with dismay. Chancellor Angela Merkel in her first message to the billionaire-turned President remarked, “Our close cooperation is based on shared values of democracy, freedom, respect for the right and dignity of every individual, irrespective of origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation or political attitude.” When she called on Trump to respect these values and set that as a condition for the continued cooperation between their two countries, many were stunned.
Yet, most analysts hoped that once he enters the Oval Office, Trump would fall in line with his predecessors and make decisions based on the age-old calculus. But the high office failed to transform the man whose campaign promises included building a wall on the Mexico border, rewriting “unfair” trade agreements, repealing the Iran deal, and confronting America’s NATO allies on their spending commitments to the alliance.
Trump has, in fact, followed through on some of his most contentious campaign pledges. His recent move to slap steep tariffs on European steel and aluminum has many upset. Talks of a trade war with Washington could now be heard in the European capitals.
A European Commission spokesperson told journalists last month that the continent will not shy away from “fighting a trade war” with the US. A month earlier, European Council President Donald Tusk called Trump’s tough talks on transatlantic trade a “bad sign” for ties between Europe and the US. “Let me be clear: instead of risking a trade war, which he (Trump) seems eager to wage, we should be aiming for greater cooperation,” he said. However, it was President Emmanuel Macron, who probably made the most humorous appeal to Trump on the issue of tariffs. During his recent US visit, he told the media, “You don't make trade war with your ally. It's too complicated if you make war against everybody. You make trade war against China, trade war against Europe, war in Syria, war against Iran. Come on, it doesn't work,” he said. “You need allies. We are an ally," he reminded Trump.
At no point in recent memory had a European leader had to remind the American President that the US and Europe are allies. But, Trump remains unmoved.
Now, with Tuesday’s decision to take the US out of the Iran nuclear agreement, he has only further alienated them.
Since then, for the first time, America’s closest European allies have acknowledged the need to move away from a US-centric approach to their security.
Chancellor Merkel said on Thursday, “It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us, but Europe must take its destiny in its own hands, that’s the task of future.” She added that the US President’s move “diminishes Europe’s confidence in the international order.”
When chancellor Merkel, no doubt a formidable European leader, asserts that it is the “task of future” for Europe to take care of its own security and that the Europe has “lost confidence’ in the US-led order, it means that a new era has dawned.
It’s not just Merkel, but Europe’s other influential leader, Macron, eager to carve out a big space for himself in the world politics, only weeks after Trump hosted him for a state dinner in Washington, called on Europe to “guarantee the multilateral order”.
“We stand today at a historic moment for Europe -- Europe is in charge of guaranteeing the multilateral order that we created at the end of World War II and which today is sometimes being shaken,” he said.
In a message to Trump and the rest of the world, he added, “We Europeans have decided to remain in the deal.”
Going further, his finance minister reprimanded the US President, telling that America should not play the role of “a global economic policeman”.
His outburst is understandable. As a result of Trump’s decision to exit the nuclear deal and re-impose sanctions on Iran, many European firms, which had rushed to do business with Tehran, stand to lose billions of dollars in deals that now have to be cancelled. And their loss would ultimately hurt the European economy.
A shared destiny?
The statements made by Merkel, Macron and others since Tuesday underline a shift, currently taking place in the transatlantic politics. As the US under Trump turns more inward and self-absorbed, Europeans are beginning to realize that a new era has dawned – one in which they could no longer count on the support of the big brother across the Atlantic-- USA. And as Chancellor Merkel pointed out, “the task of the future” for the European countries could be to take care of their own destiny.
What does this mean?
If the gap between the US and its Europe allies continue to widen under Trump, there would possibly emerge a European consensus to international affairs centred on preserving the European interests first and foremost, independent of whether the US is on-board with them or not. In other words, that would mean the emergence of a more independent and assertive Europe, pursuing its interests without the need for a nod from Washington even on issues that are of concern to both.
Thus, as Trump desired, and Merkel indicated, the Europeans may begin doing more to take care of themselves. However, in that case, the ultimate loser would be the United States, whose traditional influence over its European allies would wane.
If now the Europe cannot count on the US support to safeguard its interests, there would be a time in the future when the US would not be able to count on the Europe to advance it either.