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RIP the Trans-Atlantic Alliance, 1945-2018

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The Atlantic alliance, built to contain the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II, began to die when the Cold War ended. What kept it alive over the last three decades has been less strategic necessity than a convergence of values — the values of the liberal postwar order, reported Foreign Policy (US).

Now, the senior partner of the alliance, the United States, has lost interest in those values. The alliance was already a corpse, but Donald Trump drove the last nail into its coffin when he decided this week to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran.

What now? The United States will lurch from crisis to crisis, but Europe faces more existential questions: It has been expelled from the garden — albeit a very thorny one — maintained by U.S. military and diplomatic power and now must build a new home of its own. The European diplomats, ex-diplomats, and scholars I have spent the last few days talking to agree on that much. They’re less sure whether Europe is up to the task.

Am I — and my interlocutors — inflating a very bad moment into a mortal one? Perhaps that would be true if the problem were only Trump. In fact, Europe ceased to be the world’s geostrategic center when the Soviet menace disappeared. The humanitarian crises of the next decade reinforced the shared values of Western nations, but 9/11 abruptly diverted the United States to an obsessive focus on the Middle East. Though Barack Obama restored the shared faith in multilateralism and institutions that George W. Bush had breached, his own interests lay more in the Pacific. He yearned to pivot away from the yawning pit of the Arab world to Asia. Obama wanted the United States to face toward the future, not the past.

The American people, meanwhile, preferred to face home. They wanted a pivot to America, and they voted for the candidate who promised to deliver it. It has thus fallen to Trump to deliver the coup de grâce to the alliance that has defined the postwar world. The Iran decision followed his decision to impose tariffs on European aluminum and steel, which followed his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords. Trump is no more contemptuous toward European allies than Asian or Latin ones; the only opinion to which he defers is that of his base.

François Delattre, France’s ambassador to the United Nations, says he regards the Iran decision as “the best illustration of the Jacksonian moment the United States is going through — the uni-isolationist moment.” A new president, he concedes, might restore multilateralism. But, Delattre adds, “I am personally afraid the withdrawal is durable. The disengagement started before President Trump, and I am afraid it will last after him.”

The Iran decision has resonated among European leaders as none of Trump’s previous follies has. First, Europeans regard the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the pact is called, as the foremost proof of their capacity to act coherently and effectively. The Iran diplomacy came hard on the heels of the debacle over the Iraq War, when a divided Europe watched a U.S. president stumble into disaster. “Iran was the opposite of that,” says Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Instead of standing blinded in the headlights of American policy, Europe figured out what its own interests were.” European diplomats negotiated with the Iranians when the Bush administration refused to do so, designing a package of sanctions and incentives ultimately adopted and pushed through the U.N. Security Council by Obama.

Europe hoped to reduce tensions in the Middle East by drawing Iran out of its revolutionary shell. And it succeeded. The deal, Leonard says, was a “massive source of pride.”

As a simple matter of geographical proximity, Europe is threatened by conflict in the Middle East as the United States is not. The tidal wave of asylum-seekers from Syria in 2015 upended European politics and exposed a popular vein of xenophobia and illiberalism that has thrown a terrible scare into European elites. Europe simply cannot afford to follow the American lead if the United States is prepared to sow further chaos in the region.

Of course, Europe’s old reputation for deference and submission to the United States was reinforced by the spectacle of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel visiting the White House in the hope of propitiating the First Bully and then being dismissed with scarcely a “by your leave” — and oh, by the way, we’re still coming after your steel industry. But perhaps Europe’s leaders needed the shock. Hours after Trump’s announcement, Macron, Merkel, and British Prime Minister Theresa May issued a joint statement reminding the world that the deal had been “unanimously endorsed by the U.N. Security Council” and thus remained “the binding international legal framework” on Iran’s nuclear program. European Council President Donald Tusk announced that Trump’s Iran and trade policies “will meet a united European approach.”

The fur will fly if the United States goes ahead with secondary sanctions targeting European companies that continue to do business with Iran. Given the current bellicose mood in Washington, there is good reason to think that it will do so. Hours after assuming his post as U.S. ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell tweeted, “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” That would be Europe’s put-up-or-shut-up moment. “We’re going to have to treat the U.S. as a hostile power,” Leonard says. “We might have to introduce countermeasures against U.S. companies.” The mind reels. No, the heart breaks.

Neither side has an incentive to widen the breach. Some major European firms may withdraw from the Iranian market, even as European bankers potentially devise an end run around the U.S. financial system that will blunt the effect of secondary sanctions. Still, a combination of U.S. tariffs and sanctions may provoke the European Union to erect barriers against American products and services in Europe, leading to a trade war between the erstwhile partners.

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Reporter: Denes Osvalt
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Category: Politics, Business
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