U.S. relations with Europe are at a low ebb. While President Donald Trump has contributed to the tensions, many of the same difficulties were visible under President Barack Obama. And these tensions are likely to get worse, not better, in the years to come.
Assessing the state of transatlantic relations isn’t easy. But opinion polls show that most Western Europeans have little faith that Trump will do what they regard as the right thing. From military spending to trade to policy toward Iran, Western Europe consistently disagrees with Trump.
It is, therefore, all too easy to blame Trump for the decay of transatlantic relations. But what is more striking is the pattern in their views on the United States: It’s favorable when American liberals are in charge, unfavorable when U.S. conservatives like George W. Bush take over.
A central problem for transatlantic relations is that those relations are mapped onto American politics. That can’t be good; foreign policy should not be dominated by partisanship. But it’s made worse by the fact that European conservatism is weak.
You can have any kind of politics you want in Europe, so long as it is progressive.
That means that the American left now identifies with Europe in ways that would have shocked patriotic American postwar liberals. And it means that Europe has no sympathy with American conservatism, in ways that would have shocked Dwight Eisenhower.
Yes, American conservatism has changed over those years. But European politics have changed more. From attitudes toward military spending to the death penalty, Europe has drifted to the progressive left much more than the United States has moved to the right.
The result is a systemic bias in European political opinion in favor of the American left, and vice versa. In the eyes of many Europeans, American conservative positions are illegitimate simply because they are advanced by conservatives.
As William F. Buckley put it, “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.”
But if you can get past the problem of ideological bias, the fact is that while Europeans liked Obama’s style, they didn’t like a lot of the things he did. This has been swept under the rug of history, but at the time, Europeans hated Obama’s use of the National Security Agency, and protested en masse against U.S. trade policies.
For its part, the Obama administration complained about low European military spending almost as much as Trump does. And nothing of the Trump administration’s purported sins have generated as much outrage, questioning and doubt in Europe as Hillary Clinton’s “pivot to Asia.” The pivot made it clear that Obama had less interest in Europe than any previous postwar U.S. administration.
What Europeans want is no different from what we all want: They want to get their way. But Europe’s ideas are disproportionately tilted toward the left, which means that the range of outcomes that satisfies them is extremely narrow. They want not Europe First, but Europe Only.
And because Europe is stuck in the solutions of the left, it is losing the power to compete for its preferences. Low military spending and an economic model that devalues growth mean that Europe views competition as a dirty word. Unfortunately, the reality of this competitive world, recognized at times even by Obama, disagrees.
The causes of transatlantic differences, therefore, do not rest in the White House. They rest in the fact that the United States is more politically diverse than Europe, and that Europe by and large lacks the vibrant conservative movement needed to bring political and policy diversity to Europe.
Europeans who await Trump’s departure to solve their problems with the United States are waiting in vain. As long as Europe remains a political monoculture, those problems will endure.
Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Thatcher Center for Freedom.