“Why does he hate us?” is the question American foreign-policy types often hear from European friends and colleagues when the subject of Donald Trump comes up—as it often does. With Mr. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Europe this week, it seems an auspicious time to attempt an answer.
The news isn’t all bad. When Mr. Trump and senior administration officials talk about China, they attack it for abusing the international system in a ruthless quest for global hegemony. Their reading of Europe is different: that a mix of dysfunctional policies, unrealistic ideas about world politics, and poor institutional arrangements has locked the Continent on a trajectory of decline. As Mr. Trump’s team sees it, they aren’t trying to weaken Europe; they are trying to save Europe from itself.
There are five elements of the Trump critique of the European Union. First, some of the “new nationalists” believe multinational entities like the EU are much weaker and less effective than the governments of nation-states—so much so that the development of the EU has weakened the Western alliance as a whole. In this view, cooperation between nation-states is good and through it countries can achieve things they couldn’t achieve on their own. But trying to overinstitutionalize that cooperation is a mistake. The resulting bureaucratic structures and Byzantine politics and decision-making processes paralyze policy, alienate public opinion, and create a whole significantly less than the sum of its parts.
A second concern—in the Trump view—is that the European Union is too German. As some on the president’s team see it, German preferences mean the Continent is too hawkish when it comes to monetary and fiscal policy, and too dovish when it comes to defense. A fiscal and monetary straitjacket has cramped Europe’s growth, while the refusal of Germany to live up to its NATO commitments weakens the alliance as a whole.
A third concern is that the EU is too liberal—in the American meaning of the term, which is to say too statist on economics and too progressive on social issues. Besides the common American conservative view that statist economic policy undermines European dynamism and growth, Mr. Trump seems to believe European migration policy—especially Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to welcome more than a million mostly Muslim migrants to Germany—is a tragic mistake.
The fourth problem, as the Trumpians see it, is that the EU seeks to export its preferences on issues like capital punishment, climate policy, global governance, gender relations and so on to the rest of the world. Jacksonian American populists are deeply suspicious of virtually any form of global governance. On top of that, many of the causes that most engage the EU—LGBTQ issues, Palestinian statehood and carbon controls—aren’t exactly Jacksonian America’s cup of tea.
Finally, Mr. Trump doesn’t like the EU because on trade issues—the field where the EU operates most effectively in world politics—he believes it is an instrument intended to limit American power and reduce American leverage in trade negotiations.
Is there a path to rapprochement? Trade problems and the question of European contributions to NATO can likely be resolved with the right compromises. But values questions are more difficult. To the degree that Jacksonians remain influential in American politics, Europe’s drive to strengthen global governance and promote a secular and progressive values agenda will meet resistance in Washington.
But Jacksonian America isn’t the only or even the most significant obstacle to the EU’s universalist aspirations. Countries like China, Nigeria, Russia, India, Japan, Turkey and Brazil all seem less and less interested in European values.
Mr. Trump’s outreach to anti-Brussels figures such as Britain’s Nigel Farage and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán gets a lot of attention, but the real danger is elsewhere. There’s a world leader who dislikes the EU much more than Mr. Trump does: Vladimir Putin. The nightmare scenario for Europe isn’t that Mr. Trump meets with Mr. Farage or Marine Le Pen in the White House; it is that he reaches an arrangement with Mr. Putin over Europe’s head.
There are a few signs that something like this could be in the works. Mr. Putin recently denied an Iranian request for S-400 antiaircraft missiles, and Mr. Trump tweeted Tuesday that Russian advisers have left Venezuela, suggesting Moscow is distancing itself from the disintegrating Maduro regime. Nervous European diplomats will be looking to see if the U.S. lines on Ukraine or Russia sanctions soften in response.
For Europe, the best answer to Mr. Trump isn’t to argue with him but to succeed. An economically dynamic Europe—bearing its share of defense costs and pursuing strategic interests in an intelligent way—will command respect even if it doesn’t always spark love.