Europe has to figure out the means to an independent foreign policy and stand up to the US president on certain issues, says Barack Obama’s former foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes.
Let’s begin by looking at the bigger picture: who is in charge of foreign policy in the United States, and is there a development that worries you the most? Donald Trump very much drives American foreign policy. The US president is outside of both the Republican or Democratic party’s foreign policy communities. Europeans and others have tried to find other interlocutors on specific issues, but the big decisions ultimately reflect Donald Trump and his incredibly disruptive world view. What is interesting to me about him is that there has not been a single mistake as significant as the Iraq War or a single development as damaging as the financial crisis. Yet the very fact of Trump’s election and the nature of his presidency have profoundly shaken the ability of the US to play the role that it had over the last seventy-plus years. Other nations and their citizens simply do not have the same confidence in America as they had before.
And with regard to your concerns? What worries me is the absence of a US commitment to the international order. There is no other nation that can replace this void. I would argue that there was always going to be an evolution of that international order, and Barack Obama in many ways helped drive it. But this was supposed to play out over the next 20 or 30 years, as China emerged, as Europe balanced its relationship with the US against its own diverging interests, and as other nations of the Global South came forward. Instead we see these changes now playing out within two or three years. That is potentially very destabilizing. Ultimately, Trump’s abandonment of the international order puts us back into pre-World War I geopolitics.
Meaning that everything is merely a test of strength? Yes. Foreign policy is no longer informed by values. Trade interests are pursued through tariff wars, and strategic interests are pursued through alliances of political convenience rather than alliances based on shared democratic values and long-term interests. The international order can survive four years of Trump, even if it is never going to be quite the same. But eight years of Trump would completely upend everything from US alliances to international institutions. So, I think whether this a four-year aberration or an eight-year change of direction matters a lot. I also worry that a lot of the negative consequences of what Trump is doing around the world are not immediately apparent. In foreign policy and in global economic policy it takes some time for negative consequences to sink in. I worry that the bill for Trump’s actions is going to come due after he leaves office. Or in his second term, if he gets reelected.
Trump has always been hostile to alliances. Yes, indeed. He never felt that the US should essentially “pay” into an international system of rules, agreements, and institutions. That should not surprise people. For decades, he has been consistent in his hostility to alliances and the US-led international order. His only vision as to what replaces that is the US acting belligerently in its own business interests.
Doesn’t every US president have an element of domestic politics that informs his foreign policy? True, but I’ve never seen a president so clearly having domestic politics front and center in his foreign policy decision-making. The movement of the Embassy to Jerusalem, leaving the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), the recklessness with which he pursues these trade wars—I think a lot of this is based on where he sees political interest at home or interest of his political base. That is quite disruptive to US foreign policy because you need to be able to make and keep long-term commitments. If we are shifting like a weather vane based on which constituency is loudest in the current moment, the already difficult task of maintaining consistency in US foreign policy is going to basically become impossible.
Simply being anti-Trump is not a viable option for states or governments. What would you recommend to the European Union: more or less opposition, more cooperation or less—or just patiently waiting for a quick ending of his presidency? Throughout the first two years of the Trump administration, we have basically seen Europeans try all the different approaches available to them. You had Chancellor Angela Merkel essentially writing off Trump from the beginning, you had French President Emmanuel Macron trying the all-out charm offensive, making friends with Trump, you had British Prime Minister Theresa May veer between reaching out to Trump and having to stand up to him when he would insult London and the United Kingdom. All those approaches led to the same result; none of them was any better than the other. And that gets at the point that Trump really does have a world view or orientation, one that I think is hostile to Europe and hostile to alliances.
Having a personal relationship with him or not did not really change that. No. The end-result remained the same: Trump ended up being in direct conflict with each and every one of those leaders and continued his adversarial posture toward Europe. So how do you deal with that? I do think Europe has to figure out the means to an independent foreign policy while also standing up to Trump on certain issues. Not every issue, but those issues that are particularly important. The JCPOA is an interesting example. Can Europe keep the Iranians from taking a provocative step in the nuclear program while also taking a stand against the enforcement of US sanctions, thereby demonstrating that there are issues on which Europe can have a position that differs from a significant geo-strategic US decision?
What are your thoughts about a common European defense force? Contrary to what Trump says, these debates are constructive. Even with a normal US administration, there are going to be certain issues that are of greater interest to Europe than to other NATO member states, and Europe having its own military capacity I think is wise. There is no reason for Europe not to have that capacity if the US military carries out all kinds of missions beyond NATO. I also like the fact that Europe is, in some respects, taking a firmer stance on human rights issues. The Saudi case being the most recent example, but given the absence of an American voice on democracy and human rights in the world, it is actually very important that Europe steps up to that role of being the global spokesperson.
That’s not an easy task for Europe. Of course not, but worthwhile in a world in which China is seeking to press an alternative, authoritarian model. I do not think that Europe should try to break with the United States wholesale. Europe should hold out the possibility that this is a profound aberration in American politics and that there could be a different kind of president in two years. But over time, it is somewhat inevitable that Europe will need at least a slightly more independent set of policies. So now Europe needs to ask itself: what are those issues where we really do differ from Trump. What would it look like if we not so much opposed the US, but formulated European approaches? I recognize that this is difficult, as Europe itself is under a lot of strain, but I still think it is worth doing.
Many commentators say that Trump has only continued what Obama had started. Meaning a new conception of US foreign politics, which no longer sees its role as the world’s policeman, withdraws from the Middle East etc. How do you respond to that? I have heard that a fair amount, particularly in Europe—and I think it is kind of crazy. I do understand the premise though. Obama and Trump made similar criticisms of aspects of US foreign policy: they both criticized open-ended, extensive wars in the Middle East and they both talked about the need for greater burden-sharing, for example the two-percent defense spending goal in NATO. They diagnosed some similar challenges, but their treatments are diametrically opposed. Obama’s answer is yes, the US cannot do all these things alone, and we got over-extended after 9/11 with the Iraq War. So, now we have to channel US influence into new agreements, new global accords, new trade agreements. The world order that Obama sought was manifest most clearly in the Paris climate agreement, the TPP trade agreement, and the Iran Nuclear Deal. He used US influence to build new coalitions to solve new problems.
And Trump? His is the absolute opposite approach. If Obama’s approach was to channel American influence into new modes of international cooperation, Trump’s approach is to withdraw entirely from international agreements, abandon everything—not only Obama’s agreements, but long-standing treaties as well—and turn each foreign policy issue into a bilateral test of strength. I think it is true that they both spoke to a certain frustration with post-9/11 US foreign policy, but the answers they came up with are radically different. I think we underappreciated the extent to which it appeared like we were pivoting away from Europe and toward Asia. In our minds, we only talked about pivoting out of the wars in the Middle East, but I think we sent an unintended message.
What are your thoughts on the role of Chancellor Merkel and her role for the West? Do you think she will be replaced easily, or will things fall apart after she leaves office? Only recently, I was talking to Obama about Merkel. One reason why they got along so well was personal chemistry and history. Yet the important point about her is that she was one of the rare leaders in our time who was willing to do things that were either politically difficult or politically dissident and not advantageous to her, if she felt like a core Western principle was at stake. This was not only the case with the refugee crisis, but also with the eurozone crisis. Even if she did not do as much on Greece as Obama would have wanted at certain times, she did enough, despite encountering resistance domestically and on the European level. We have seen her do this in a number of different circumstances. The Russia sanctions following the Crimean crisis were not an easy step for her to take either, but she wanted to send a clear signal that there need to be consequences for the invasion of the Ukraine. If you look at these decisions on refugees, Russia, the eurozone, and other EU issues, you see her being a leader who understands her role first and foremost as Chancellor of Germany, but also as someone who needs to take difficult stances in defense of issues and principles important to the future of the West.
So, losing that will be difficult? Yes, it will. Equally, the reason many Germans are ready to move on, her very long time in office, is of incredible importance to the West, as it means she has enormous institutional memory. She has seen it all, and a lot of these issues that are in the world today, from migration to European integration to terrorism, have developed during the more than a decade that she has been around. Losing the Western leader with the deepest institutional memory is a significant blow. You will not be able to replace that quickly and you do need a German chancellor, whoever it is, who is at least inclined to see part of their job as defending Europe and European values. That does not mean we need a second Angela Merkel, but I do hope that the next German chancellor is someone committed to being a European leader and shepherding the EU through this difficult moment. I recognize that as Americans who did not manage to do that, we do not get to choose here.
What about other leaders? It’s heartening to have somebody in Macron who, more so than his predecessor François Hollande, sees part of his role in energizing the EU and pushing back on right-wing nationalism. You also have a charismatic leader in Justin Trudeau who can speak on democratic values with more experience on the world stage than he had a few years ago. And you have some other people invested in making the case for liberalism on the world stage. Still, Merkel will leave a big vacuum, which puts even more focus on the outcome of the next US presidential election and Brexit. If she indeed sees out her fourth term and we get what I would hope to be a better result in the next presidential election, she may have helped create a bridge over the Trump years in a way that is interesting. I say that recognizing that America will not get back its credibility overnight, but the timing may prove to be interesting nevertheless.
Do you know whether President Obama and Chancellor Merkel are still in contact and do you have an anecdote from the two of them? Occasionally, they are in contact. He calls her. He reached out to her on her birthday and called her after her election. His constant refrain is to be supportive of her and what she is doing, to offer any help he can, in any way, and just stay in touch. While also respecting that she is currently dealing with Trump and does not really have to have a very high-profile relationship with Barack Obama right now. It has been a quiet, but ongoing relationship.
The interview was conducted by Martin Bialecki.