The rare and dramatic leak of diplomatic memos between the United States and Great Britain in early July showed that the countries of Europe, often submissive to the U.S., might muster enough courage to stand up to Trump. The rare reveal of confidential diplomatic cables, written in clear terms and with little ambiguity certainly undermined the presumed “special relationship” between the two countries.
In the cables, British ambassador to the U.S. Kim Darroch reported to London that the White House was “uniquely dysfunctional” and plagued by “vicious infighting.” Darroch also implied that the economic policy of the Trump administration threatened to break up the world trade system and that the scandal-plagued president was probably “at the beginning of a downward spiral, rather than just a rollercoaster. Something could emerge that leads to disgrace and downfall.”
Some experts say that the incident confirms deteriorating U.S.-European relations.
The diplomatic discord is mainly reflected in the conflict of interest between Trump’s “America First” policy and the European integration process, and the greater battle between unilateralism and multilateralism.
President Trump's “America First” policy has been a tool to continuously attack the European integration process. He openly claimed that the founding of the European Union was meant to “really take advantage of” the U.S., and that the EU was therefore a “foe.” He supported Brexit and encouraged other EU members to follow suit, even offering a more preferential bilateral trade deal to lure President Emmanuel Macron to lead France out of the EU.
In a rarely-seen move, Europe denounced Trump’s attempt to dismantle the EU, and took concerted steps to defend EU unity and integration. In the tussle with the U.S., Macron played a leading role, and had the support of both France and other European nations. On July 13, Macron announced that France was to establish a space command. Some commentators said this was a call for Europe to compete directly with the U.S. in the space defense field, to improve Europe’s defense capabilities and “get rid of dependence on the U.S.” As early as November, Macron called for the creation of “a real European army,” which won the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Their intention was obvious: to get rid of reliance on the U.S.-led NATO for defense. The space command and European army are important measures envisioned by Macron to speed up the European integration process.
On July 11, the French Senate also approved a bill that would levy taxes on more than 30 internet companies, including American companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple. The U.S. claimed that the move was unlawful and threatened to launch a Section 301 investigation. According to estimates made by French media organizations, the digital tax could add about 400 million euros to French coffers each year, while the four American internet giants would pay out merely hundreds of thousands. Though the amount to be paid was small, the significance of the move could not be underestimated as a form of retaliation against U.S.’s 2018 tariffs on EU products.
Macron’s actions were reminiscent of those taken by President Charles de Gaulle. When de Gaulle fought for independence from the U.S., relations with other European nations also turned sour. Macron is different. He played the bellwether role and defended the European integration process — asserting the new strength of Europe in the face of Trump’s “America First” policy.
Another point of discord between the U.S. and Europe lies in the conflict between multilateralism and unilateralism.
Shortly after swearing in, Trump took two major actions: first, he pursued trade protectionism and fought trade wars with other nations; and second, he led the U.S. out of about a dozen treaties and international organizations, including the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the Paris climate agreement, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and the United Nations Human Rights Council. Trump’s defense was his claim that multilateral mechanisms and agreements are unfavorable to the U.S., and that bilateral relations would better benefit the country.
Trump’s obsession with unilateralism and Europe’s rising pursuit of multilateralism could not coexist. Europe is a staunch supporter of multilateralism. It supports the rules-based multilateral free trade system, opposes trade protectionism and unilateralism, and is a leader in globalization and trade liberalization.
China also firmly supports multilateralism and opposes unilateralism, and intends to make globalization more open, inclusive, and balanced so that its benefits are shared by all. In this aspect, China and Europe share many common goals. European nations were even active in joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and took part in the Belt and Road Initiative with an open and cooperative attitude. On April 9 during his visit to Europe, Premier Li Keqiang issued a joint statement with President of the European Council Donald Tusk, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, stating their support for multilateralism and respect for international laws, with the United Nations serving as the core and setting the norms of international relations.
It is worth noting that immediately after becoming the British prime minister, Boris Johnson explained that his administration will be very “China friendly” — ensuring that the British market will open to all Chinese investors, enthusiastically taking part in the Belt and Road Initiative, and welcoming more Chinese students to study in Britain. At a time when the U.S. was deliberately creating obstacles and restraints for China, Johnson’s policy goals are self-evident and in step with the political atmosphere in Europe.
While the discord and contention over multilateralism and unilateralism push the U.S. and Europe further apart, China and Europe draw closer together. This is a global trend that cannot be ignored.