Europe alarmed over US chaos
By MICHAEL BIRNBAUM | The Washington Post | Published: May 18, 2017
BRUSSELS — Washington's closest allies in Europe are increasingly worried that rising political chaos in the United States is undermining the strength of the most powerful nation in the world.
In conversations with more than two dozen current and former European ministers, lawmakers, diplomats, intelligence officials and military officers in recent days, there was a common theme: After nearly four months of President Donald Trump's administration, many fear that mounting domestic scandals could sap Washington's ability to respond to challenges ranging from Russia to terrorism to North Korea.
And one senior European intelligence officer said if his agency ever came into possession of information that was incriminating to Trump or his circle, it would hold back from sharing with the United States for fear the U.S. president would seek revenge. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was concerned about provoking Trump's reaction.
The officials paint a continent on edge ahead of Trump's first foreign trip, a nine-day voyage that in Europe includes a visit to NATO in Brussels, an audience with the pope and meetings with European leaders. With the White House under siege, some officials said that they were still searching for ways to work with Trump even as they were deeply concerned about the future.
"It's disturbing," said Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who works on U.S. affairs.
"The vacuum may encourage people all over the world to seize the moment of an absent United States," she said, pointing to political turmoil in the Western Balkans and Syrian President Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons in Syria as first examples.
Many officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they worried about jeopardizing their standing with an unpredictable U.S. president who, they say, may be quick to lash out at their nations if he is criticized.
Mixed with the worry is a thread of relief: Many of Trump's most radical foreign policy promises during the campaign have been toned down now that he is in the White House. He has reversed himself on NATO, which he called "obsolete" shortly before his inauguration. His defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, are both respected here. He appears resigned to following the terms of the Iran nuclear deal, which was negotiated alongside European powers.
Even his criticism of the 28-nation European Union has been toned down "for a few weeks," one senior EU official said.
And few said that they were worried about a decline of U.S. democratic institutions, at least not yet, saying that for all the chaos, American checks and balances still appear to be working.
"I have faith in the U.S.," said Michael Aastrup Jensen, a Danish lawmaker who is the foreign policy spokesman for Denmark's ruling center-right Liberal Party. "I know a lot of moderate senators and congressmen. They will do whatever they can to keep the U.S. system we believe strongly in, in line."
While many officials say that Trump's first months in office have been calmer for international security than they expected, they have also watched Washington's swirling dramas with growing concern.
"I'm getting increasingly worried that this internal chaos in the United States is growing to an unimaginable scale," one European minister said. "And that may grow into security and defense policy. If you are only fighting about tweets, if you don't have time to follow what's happening in the world, that's really disturbing."
The minister described waking up in the morning and tuning to CNN to see nothing but wall-to-wall coverage of Washington chaos.
"To regain a kind of moral leadership will be extremely difficult. Because now every guy around the world will point their fingers and say, look at your own history. This will take a long time," the minister said.
Officials also said that even if they welcomed the White House's about-faces on issues like NATO, there was little trust that the newest position was the one that would stick.
"To say that NATO is obsolete and then to say that it is not, or to support the populist movements in Europe and then to say, once they have lost, that you don't support them," does not create major relief, said Pierre Vimont, a former senior French diplomat who is now at Carnegie Europe, a think tank. "The statements that were saying exactly the contrary have created some sort of uncertainty, unpredictability, that takes time to disappear."
This week's revelation in The Washington Post that Trump shared highly sensitive intelligence about terrorist threats with the Kremlin was seen not only with surprise in Europe because Russia is a NATO adversary, officials said. It was especially galling because U.S. allies had not received any briefings about the threat - even as the Homeland Security Department considers a ban on the key security concern, laptops from U.S.-bound flights from Europe.
European officials finally received a classified briefing in Brussels on Wednesday - a week after Trump ushered Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov into the Oval Office.
"The spilling of secrets by the president is getting worse every day," a Western European diplomat said.
Many European officials have been reassured to see that much of Trump's foreign policy seems to be administered by his more conventional subordinates. But they said even if daily policy decisions were in the hands of seasoned professionals, they were fearful of Trump's reflexes during inevitable international eruptions.
"We're facing it day by day. But I'm scared of what happens when there's a crisis," said a senior NATO diplomat, who for months after the November election cheerfully shrugged off worries that Trump could threaten Europe. His assessment changed after watching Trump's temperament in office, the diplomat said.
The sense of concern has helped spur European discussions about a future with a diminished or antagonistic U.S. partner. One major focus has been increased defense cooperation separate from NATO, in which Washington is the dominant partner.
"We will . . . improve our capacity to act autonomously, whenever and wherever necessary," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Thursday after a meeting of EU defense ministers devoted to forming deployable European military units.
Searching for a positive side of the turmoil, officials say they have been shaken out of a post-Cold War complacency that the United States would unquestioningly be there for Europe.
Trump "has managed to provoke a healthy European debate on the transatlantic relationship," said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former NATO secretary general. "In the past we took it for granted."
For now, many European lawmakers say they have little choice but to adapt to the new circumstances, given Washington's decisive international power.
"Our thinking is that the personality of the president is not very much likely to get changed," said Norbert Röttgen, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of Germany's parliament and a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Uncertainty over U.S. foreign policy "creates a void," he said. "But the U.S. remains the United States, the most powerful, decisive nation on earth and in our alliance system, and we are determined to work together."
Annabell Van den Berghe contributed to this report.