Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


JUNE 2017

For Americans who lived in Europe or served there with the military since 1945, the Memorial Day headlines were startling: "Merkel: Europe must go it alone" (Washington Post); "Wary of Trump, Merkel says U.S. is less reliable" (New York Times), The German chancellor modified her remarks a day later, but her call for Europeans to take seriously President Trump's threat to limit America's defense commitment to NATO resonated across Europe.

When Trump pledged a week later to disavow U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Accord, another headline proclaimed "Europe's view of U.S. ties darkens: Paris deal pullout jolts continent." (Wash. Post)

How should we assess this rupture in U.S.-European relations?

Optimists suggest that NATO has been through other crises since its formation in 1949 and survived because all its members understood they could not go it alone in a dangerous world. They admit U.S. economic relations with Europe are contentious and think Trump was justified in criticizing Europe, specifically Germany, for promoting exports and building large trade imbalances with the U.S. However, optimists seem confident that a growing U.S. economy will ameliorate many economic problems with Europe.

Pessimists charge that Trump is destroying the liberal world order that kept the peace in Europe and held the NATO alliance together for seventy years. They fear that nationalist and populist pressures are driving the world apart and cite Britain' decision a year ago to leave the European Union and Donald Trump's proclamation of "America first" as evidence. These events threaten the European Union's future, they argue, while conceding that Emanuel Macron's election as France's new president provides some hope that the EU will hold together.

Trump's scolding of NATO allies for being laggards on defense captured the headlines, but his strong criticism of Germany's economic policies dominated the subsequent G-7 meeting in Sicily. Not only had Europe become complacent, he argued, under the U.S. defense umbrella, but Germany has become an economic superpower at the expense of the U.S. and its EU partners.

In its gross domestic product (GDP), Germany clearly outdistances two European powers, Britain and France, and dwarfs those of Italy and Spain. In 2015, Germany's GDP totaled $3.36 trillion; Great Britain's was $2.85 trillion, and France's totaled $2.4 trillion. If Britain exits the EU as planned in 2019. the German economy will dominate continental Europe in economic output and trade.

Trump argues that Germany's unwillingness to alter its conservative economic policies makes it nearly impossible for some EU members to grow their economies. A few experts suggest that the euro, Europe's common currency, is responsible for this situation and should be scrapped.

We are witnessing what some call a paradigm shift in U.S. international relations, a move away from globalism and multinational organizations and reliance instead on our national interests.

This shift was underlined in a recent Wall Street Journal op/ed by two of Trump's top aides: National Security advisor H.R. McMaster, and Gary Cohn, director of his National Economic Council. They argue that Trump doesn't believe the world is a "global community." Instead, it's "an arena where nations, non-governmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs. we endorse it."

If the world, according to Trump, is an arena in which nations compete continuously for advantage, America will pursue different foreign policy strategies than it has since the 1940s, when Franklin Roosevelt was president.

Nationalism, not internationalism and globalism, is the new Trump doctrine for dealing with the world. This defines U.S. interests narrowly, with emphasis on economic interests and military power, and less on international security and promotion of values. Like Richard Nixon, Trump places emphasis on great power politics, with Russia and China, But unlike Nixon, he gives less attention to relations with Europe.

We wait for Congress to decide how far it should go to support Trump's nationalist policies. For the present, Capitol Hill will give the president leeway to decide U.S. foreign policy. But the 2018 elections may be a test.

File last modified on Friday, 09-JUN-2017 8:45 AM EST

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