Ahead of President Donald Trump’s first NATO meeting and G-7 summit, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel came to Washington with a message: If “America First” means anything, it means putting European security at the top of the agenda.
Speaking on the 70th anniversary of the Marshall Plan – the American initiative to provide economic support to western Europe after the second World War – Gabriel reminded his audience, both those in attendance and those in the White House, that the multi-billion dollar aid program “had nothing to do with altruism.”
Rather, Gabriel said, it was conceived and executed for the same reason that a Europe whole and free has been an American priority since the Atlantic Charter was signed in 1941 – because the strength, security, economic health of Europe is in the U.S. interest, and is part of the policy that has made the United States (and Europe) strong, secure, and economically healthy over the past seven decades.
Gabriel preempted certain arguments (that the U.S.-European alliance is, to use Trump’s NATO parlance, obsolete) by acknowledging that of course the challenges of the 21st century are different than those of the 20th – but challenges still exist.
The liberal world order, he said, is increasingly called into question, and only by joining together can the United States and Europe set the standards – for example, in the face of One Belt, One Road, China’s massive undertaking to connect the infrastructures and economies of scores of countries across Eurasia.
Gabriel also tried to revive trade trade talks between Europe and the United States. Europe, he said, is the world’s biggest market. The United States is the second biggest. “If we join hands, we will be able to set standards. Not only for free trade, but also for fair trade … If not, China will set the standards.”
Similarly, Gabriel acknowledged that Europe must do more in terms of its own security. But he reminded his audience that European states are already doing this – not because Trump told them to, but because they themselves recognize they need to.
Still, Gabriel pushed back against the idea – as other European leaders have done before him – that all NATO member countries must spend two percent of their GDP on defense. There are other ways to influence security, and to improve it – for example, by improving the efficiency of European defense spending.
Gabriel’s words represent, if not a warning shot, then at least a promise that Germany and Europe would not be cowed by Trump’s rhetoric.
His speech came a day after a senior White House official told reporters, [Trump] “would like to stay in NATO. But he is not going to stay in NATO if NATO doesn’t make a lot more progress much quicker. We’ll either see real changes toward NATO or we’ll try to form a different way of going about things.” And NATO-skeptic Stephen Miller, Trump’s NATO advisor, is apparently writing the president’s NATO speech.
But, then, Gabriel’s speech also came amid reports that the Trump team had 18 undisclosed contacts with Russian officials over the course of the campaign and after the announcement of a special prosecutor to investigate Trump’s team’s potential ties to Russia.
Regarding that domestic discord, Gabriel told a cautionary tale. America, he seemed to suggest, remains the world’s “indispensable nation,” a role it can hardly fulfill if it is torn apart at home.
“We are not the judges” of U.S. domestic politics, Gabriel said. But, he added, “We need a stable and internationally engaged U.S. administration. You are citizens of a real superpower,” he said.
“If America is too much engaged with its interior problems, there will be a vacuum in the international sphere, and in this vacuum there are some guys who want to go inside.”
(c) 2017, Foreign Policy · Emily Tamkin