The past week wasn’t a good one for the shrinking crowd of devoted transatlanticists. They are being hammered from all sides. President Trump’s wild comments about the European Union started the roller-coaster ride, followed by reactions from Europe.
The pinnacle of these exchanges was a letter written to European heads of state and governments by the former Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk — the EU’s non-elected president — suggesting that Russia, radical Islam and “declarations by the U.S. administration” are equal factors in making the future unpredictable.
This escalation of messages back and forth only benefits one person: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
I do not like the Trump rhetoric at all. I don’t agree with his comments on Europe; they are way too simplistic. But I am also worried about Europe’s bosses jumping to conclusions about the transatlantic relationship based on snippets of provocative comments just two weeks into the new administration.
I find these equally disturbing.
Europeans should remember that they (Germany or Poland included) owe their freedom and democracy to the United States, not the other way around. They should be reminded that this relationship is not for the fair-weather only.
It must endure storms, volcanoes and earthquakes. It cannot be dealt with in four- or even eight-year cycles.
The reunification of Germany and the liberation of Eastern Europe was the result of the perseverance of Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. But it was also the result of the personal relationships and trust between German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and other European leaders and U.S. presidents.
These personal relationships were critical and decisive, and it made a complicated world that much easier to navigate.
During current British Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent visit to the United States, she delivered a speech at the Republican retreat, an informal gathering of GOP leaders. An eyewitness told me that she went at length to defend the transatlantic relationship, the importance of NATO, and — surprise, surprise — U.S.-EU relations.
She got a standing ovation. But her effort to establish a relationship of trust with Trump was perhaps even more important.
Brexit, Britain’s decision to leave the EU, may well be a serious blow to European unity, and although we won’t know the real consequences for sometime, I suspect it will not be good. But one thing is for certain: Losing the United Kingdom as an essential ingredient in the glue that makes the transatlantic relationship stick will be a huge loss.
Discarding May’s offer to help the EU communicate with Trump, or offering silly comments like “We are communicating with the United States mainly on Twitter,” as Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said, is nuts.
The lack of personal relationships across the Atlantic and the disconnect between key Europeans and Americans is a disaster in the making — especially now, when the institutional contacts usually preferred by Europeans are in tatters. That is in big part a result of Europeans banking on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s victory — in essence, neglecting the Trump team, or, even worse, ridiculing the whole affair as insanely impossible.
Our think tank had suggested that Europeans have a Plan B ready. We did warn that Trump could win, that his victory was more than just a theoretical possibility. However, Europeans and their “ears” — their Washington-based diplomats — were lulled into complacency by the very same pundits who messed up Clinton’s campaign.
Europeans don’t elect the president of the United States; they have to deal with the one Americans choose. Europeans need to understand that Trump is not an accident nor a slip of a couple of votes. His election is a result of a tectonic change in American society.
Americans will fight their own fight to protect democracy. And those Europeans who do not trust Americans to sort it out themselves will show a complete misunderstanding of the strength of America and the American people. Europeans who permit themselves to be dragged into the debate between Democrats and Republicans as well as between Republicans and Republicans, are making the same mistake as Trump when he takes sides in Europe’s internal fights.
Europeans are right to be offended by Trump’s statements about Europe. But Europe should not hide behind Trump. The botched refugee crisis, which gave a new lease on life to autocrats like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — which helped Brexit across the finish line, is not America’s fault.
We need some strategic patience — some grown-up behavior — on both sides. The messages emanating from the EU’s Malta summit were not helpful. It smacked of leaders huddling together and chanting “we are not afraid” while being terrified.
Anti-Americanism, even in the form of anti-Trumpism, should not be the uniting factor.
In all this mess, the speed with which the sides reconnect is of critical importance. Last week at the National Prayer Breakfast, a Washington institution, thousands of leaders from all over the world showed up to pray with American religious and political leaders.
King Abdullah of Jordan, a participant, smartly used the opportunity to have a private, no-fanfare and no-kidding conversation with the president, putting out a potential fire. It was good to see among other Europeans like Deputy Prime Minister Timo Soini of Finland in the crowd. It was important that he and other friends of the U.S. chose to come. They used the opportunity to build that other critical pillar of diplomacy, informal personal relations.
Some of them got close to the president, the vice president, and members of Congress to try and get a better understanding of not just American reality, but the new Trump reality.
Hopefully, they exchanged telephone numbers. Ultimately, it is all about people, and without those numbers, when the transatlantic community catches fire — real fire, unlike the sparks of the last weeks — numbers will be our life insurance, our transatlantic 911.