Column: These are uncertain times for U.S. allies

  • Signe Wilkinson

For The Dallas Morning News
Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Seventy-five years ago, thousands of American and Allied sailors, soldiers and aviators braved heavy seas and murderous German fire in the historic invasion that began the decisive campaign to end Nazi control of Europe.

The success of the D-Day landings, Europe’s liberation 11 months later and its economic recovery over ensuing decades were a tribute not only to the bravery of the invading troops but to the unprecedented military and political unity that American presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama forged with European allies.

But as President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron mark Thursday’s D-Day anniversary at the Colleville-sur-Mer cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, that unity is fraying, thanks to increasing nationalism within Europe and the tensions Trump has created by questioning the value of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and clashing with long-time U.S. allies over trade.

Even before becoming president, Trump questioned future U.S. adherence to the way NATO binds the United States to Europe by committing its signatories to aid one another if attacked. The 28-nation European Union was one of the early targets of Trump’s effort to revamp U.S. trade agreements.

In addition, he has interfered to an unprecedented extent in internal European affairs, especially in Great Britain. He encouraged the Brexit movement that unexpectedly won a 2016 referendum, a vote still having repercussions today.

And on the eve of this week’s visit, in an interview with a British tabloid, the Sun, Trump criticized Prime Minister Theresa May’s handling of the Brexit talks. In addition, Trump trashed London mayor Sadiq Khan as “a stone cold loser” and called a member of the royal family, the former Meghan Markle, “nasty” for making critical 2016 comments about him.

But while thousands of protesters mocked Trump in the streets of London, the British sought to return the focus to the purpose of this week’s commemorations. At Monday night’s Buckingham Palace state dinner, Queen Elizabeth toasted the two nations’ “close and lasting relationship” and gave Trump a copy of Winston Churchill’s World War II memoirs. At a news conference Tuesday, May stressed the “special relationship” between the two nations, an emphasis Trump then reciprocated. But the president could not resist recalling that he predicted the success of the Brexit vote, though he sought to mitigate his earlier criticism by saying May “has done a very good job” in the negotiations.

More significant than these personal flaps are the Trump policy moves that have convinced many European leaders they can no longer rely on the United States, among them his administration’s unilateral decisions to withdraw from the intermediate-range missile treaty with Russia and the Iran nuclear agreement.

At a security conference in February, European officials listened silently as Vice President Mike Pence urged them to join in withdrawing from the Iran agreement.

But former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential Democratic successor to Trump, was cheered when he declared, “This too shall pass. We will be back.”

For Macron, the breaking point with Trump came when the American president announced he was pulling U.S. troops out of Syria. The two leaders are also at odds over the Iran agreement and U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate pact.

Trump has, when pressured, reiterated U.S. commitment to supporting an attacked NATO ally. But he strained U.S. relations with fellow members of the 70-year-old pact by repeatedly demanding that NATO members increase their defense spending, a point he reiterated in London.

While Trump has suffered increasingly rocky relations with Europe’s main U.S. allies — Macron, May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — he gave warm White House welcomes to their more authoritarian counterparts like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who was shunned by the two previous U.S. presidents.

These displays by Trump, including his continuing initiatives toward North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and his reluctance to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive moves in Ukraine, have raised questions in Europe about whether there has been a fundamental change in U.S. attitudes or this is unique to this president.

As with many other pending issues, only the 2020 presidential election can answer that. But for now, it’s fair to say the U.S.-European relationship today is less solid than it has been through most of the 75 years since those soldiers from 13 nations stormed ashore on the beaches of Normandy.

Carl P. Leubsdorf can be reached at carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.