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Why Trump Has Been Good for Europe

As Erdogan's latest threats show, the EU needs to learn to stand on its own, without constant leaning on America.

Donald Trump leaves after a meeting with EU officials at EU headquarters, on the sidelines of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit, in Brussels, on May 25, 2017. (THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP via Getty Images)

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been making up for the fact that he resembles a divorced middle manager by acting tough on the world stage. If Greece does not enter into negotiations over territorial disputes in the Mediterranean, he has warned, it could face “painful experiences.”

Earlier this year, Erdogan gloated about opening Turkey’s borders to allow migrants to rush to Europe. In a vicious insult to the Christian legacy of Constantinople, he then declared that the Hagia Sofia would be converted into a mosque.

Playing the victim at the same time it plays tough, the Turkish government accused Sebastian Kurz of “xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia” for arguing that Erdogan weaponizes immigrants against Europe. Given that Erdogan has called on Turkish migrants to have more children because they are “the future of Europe”—as well as using North African immigrants as a negotiating tool—this is somewhat like a wolf complaining about being called carnivorous.

Clearly, Erdogan is spoiling for a confrontation with a European Union that has firmly and repeatedly rejected his proposals for Turkish admittance. But surely Europe can depend on its old ally, the U.S., to knock Erdogan into line?

No. If anything, Donald Trump has had a warmer relationship with the Turkish strongman than with any European leader. Trump has called Erdogan a “great chess master” and Erdogan has spoken of his admiration for Trump. This is not to claim that Trump will stay out of the dispute, still less that he will intervene on the Turkish side, but European leaders are at least less confident about being supported than they would have been previously.

Trump has faced a lot of criticism for his periods of hostility and indifference towards European states and the European Union. Commentators grumble when he and his representatives chastise European governments for their allegedly insufficient NATO contributions, and when he makes less than ideal diplomatic appointments, such as naming the politically inexperienced scion of cosmetics magnate Gerald Gidwitz both his ambassador to Belgium and his ambassador to the European Union. David M. Herszenhorn, writing for Politico, reflected on these choices:

In Brussels and other EU capitals, recent events have only confirmed the genuineness of Trump’s instincts regarding transatlantic relations: to treat America’s closest historic allies as punching bags, to be kicked at in the rare moments when they aren’t totally forgotten in a dark corner of the basement of his brain.

Overheated, perhaps. Trump has worked productively, if by no means harmonically, with Macron, and Johnson, and Duda. Still, there is some truth to the idea that he has resented and scorned European leaders.

But if Europe has to rely less on the United States, is that really a bad thing? For decades, European governments have leaned heavily on the U.S. for military power, medical innovation, medical supplies, et cetera, all while coasting on a higher level of cultural prestige for their less belligerent foreign policies and more humane health care systems.

It is always fun for Europeans to talk about how appalling it is that Americans can go bankrupt paying for medicines, but it bears the odor of hypocrisy as long as European health care is reliant on American blood. That is not a hyperbolic, faux-poetic flourish. The EU has been attempting to achieve more independence in pharmaceutical production, but it relies on imports of American blood—or, more specifically, American blood plasma.

Of course, the relationship is not a charitable one. European states buy military and medical resources, as well as much else besides. Still, achieving more societal independence, with more spending on defense and innovation, is cause to celebrate, not cause for sadness. Europeans cannot simultaneously announce their almost unanimous distrust for Donald Trump and premise their future on the blithe assumption of endless American resources and security.

Herszenhorn added:

Meanwhile, Trump’s calls for stronger crackdowns and the militarized response to many street protests across the U.S….have heightened fears in Europe that there is something deeply broken in U.S. society that even replacing Trump might not fix.

The German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, was among the European leaders to condemn the violence in the U.S. and call for restraint and respect for the rule of law.

Feigning shock at the idea of police beating protesters would be audacious after the EU shruggingly accepted the violence of Spanish police against protesters in Catalonia, and the violence of French police against the protesters and rioters of the gilets jaunes. Just this week (though, in fairness, Herszenhorn’s article was written back in June), a video emerged that appeared to show German police beating a woman on the ground at a protest against COVID-19-related lockdowns. Gun violence might be quite exceptional to the United States, but violence itself is not.

Still, again, I wonder if it is a truly bad thing if a little faith is lost in the American project. That project, after all, for the European Union, is neoliberal technocracy and heavy-handed multilateralism, the foundations of a paradigm that has been exposed as weak, confused, and overstretched. It might be profitable for the U.S. and Europe to seek more resilient and independent paths, not without friendship, of course, but without illusions. As Aris Roussinos has written:

From China to India, Russia to Turkey, the great and middling powers of Eurasia are drawing ideological succour from the pre-liberal empires from which they claim descent, remoulding their non-democratic, statist political systems as a source of strength rather than weakness, and upturning the liberal-democratic triumphalism of the late 20th century.

Erdogan’s increasing confidence appears to reflect a belief that Trumpism is nationalistic enough that Europe cannot afford to hitch a ride on America’s military-industrial machine. Trump has been good for Europe inasmuch as he has forced its leaders to appreciate the partial truth of this.

In a world of ambitious “civilization states,” Europeans can stand with allies but must also stand up for themselves—and, as geopolitical rivals scorn their heritage and mock their cultural and demographic malaise, could also find something of the European identities that preceded fruitless managerial liberalism.

Of course, one hopes that arguments between Erdogan and Greece will be resolved peacefully. But one also hopes the Turkish opportunist will be sent packing. He can take his bowler hat and briefcase with him.

Ben Sixsmith is a British writer living in Poland who has written for Quillette, the Spectator USA, the Catholic Herald, Public Discourse, and Unherd.

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