Trump merkel
Credit: White House/Flickr

As Donald Trump finishes his first overseas trip as president, a nine-day whirlwind tour of Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, a G-7 meeting in Italy, and a NATO summit in Brussels, policymakers back home fret whether they witnessed a diplomatic drive-by shooting more than a series of state visits. Europeans — having sweated through their own elections threatened by right-wing nationalism — were justifiably anxious about receiving an erratic U.S. president who has dismissed NATO as obsolete, the EU as irrelevant, and the Russian threat as not credible. As America wallows in mass hallucination in the era of Trump, a case can be made for a containment doctrine by our allies — to protect themselves from the United States.

George Kennan, the father of the containment doctrine against the Soviet Union, wrote, “who can say with assurance that the strong light still cast by the Kremlin on the dissatisfied peoples of the western world is not the powerful afterglow of a constellation which is in actuality on the wane?” Seven decades on, America may be the 21st century’s death star, a great body casting a bright glow, but whose moral core is dead, whose political and social dynamics risk exploding at any time, thereby endangering its partners.

A mere four months into his administration, the new president is saddled seemingly daily with new scandals and a stalled legislative agenda. President Trump has been dismissive of the post-World War II security order that helped bring down communism, averted another global conflagration, and stimulated prosperity through liberal trade. He’s dissed our closest allies while cozying up to authoritarian strongmen in Russia, Turkey and Egypt. And he refused to commit the U.S. to collective defense under NATO — a bedrock of the transatlantic alliance. His secretary of state is the phantom captain of a ghost ship; key department positions go unfilled and officials fly blind lacking guidance, while Rex Tillerson has missed meetings with visiting heads of state and other foreign officials, has little contact with his own bureaucracy, and treats the news media as if it were plague-infested.

The intelligence community has borne the brunt of repeated tirades from the commander-in-chief, who dismisses their reports and analyses. Trump’s respected Defense Secretary James Mattis has been holding the flame of sane traditional American national security policy, backed up by Nikki Haley, the U.N. ambassador.

There is no White House national security strategy document, nor any hints one may be on the way any time soon. Nor has a barely-staffed State Department started the policy review process it carries out with every new administration. An “America First” doctrine connotes neo-isolationism, and the world is left to puzzle through a daily battery of rancorous 140-character tweets from Donald Trump to try to discern the direction of U.S. policy. The attack against Syria in April was carried out in a policy vacuum, with no overriding strategic context.

“Angela Merkel, whether she wants the job or not, is the West’s last, best hope,” noted Politico, running a photo of the German Chancellor with the headline “The Leader of the Free World Meets Donald Trump.” Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper countered, “Germany cannot occupy the place that America under Donald Trump has just vacated. All the more responsibility falls to Europe.”

Indeed it does. The conflict in Syria continues to worsen as Russia, Iran and their allies have acted virtually unchecked, the targeted U.S. strike against Syria notwithstanding. Refugee flows to Europe are likely to continue. Meanwhile, Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine and the Baltic countries — and to weaken NATO — proceed unabated. Even the Swedes and Finns are questioning their traditional neutrality in face of Russian provocations. Europe must act swiftly to fill the void being left by the United States, but also must shield itself from erratic and incompetent leadership in Washington. How does it do this?

While fraying EU unity has been dominating the headlines, a trend toward greater security cooperation and coordination among the Europeans has been quietly playing out since the dawn of the new century. The 1999 Kosovo War spurred the Europeans toward the development of an autonomous military capability. In 2009, the EU adopted the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) setting the framework for EU military operations abroad. And between 2002 and 2014, the EU has carried out thirty operations using civilian and military resources in Europe, Africa and Asia under the CSDP.

The 2016 EU Global Strategy further lays out the strategy underlying the CSDP, committing EU members to “strategic autonomy,” but undefined is exactly what constitutes strategic autonomy. The European allies simply lack the delivery, intelligence, communications, and logistics systems that America possesses to give them strategic reach. They will remain dependent on U.S. capabilities in these areas for decades to come. The EU nevertheless needs to apply the requisite resources to its ambition of strategic autonomy to make that autonomy a reality in the years ahead, thereby reducing its reliance on an undependable America increasingly drawing in on itself.

While the UK’s withdrawal from the EU removes 25 percent of the EU’s military capability, also gone will be London’s unflagging opposition to an enhanced EU defense and military role. After the Brexit referendum, Germany, France and Italy issued a joint declaration reaffirming their commitment to European unity, and, on the defense side, to joint operations, enhanced military capacity and industry. EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker had earlier stated, “a common army among the Europeans would convey to Russia that we are serious about defending the values of the European Union.” Without Britain, this process will likely accelerate. At the same time, there is interest in UK policy circles in forging arrangements to continue British participation in EU defense structures.

It is too early to say whether we are entering a post Pax Americana world. But America may be sinking into an extended funk of self-absorption and quasi-isolationism, much as in the 1920s and 1930s. Much hinges on whether an out-of-his-depth Donald Trump is a short-lived, single-term president, and how soon America can heal itself and overcome political dysfunction. The danger is that extended dysfunction turns into permanent paralysis.

George Kennan foresaw this dilemma: “The United States can create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power.” Or not.

Europe faces a tall order to defend the EU against the Brits and Americans. Rather than Cold War-style containment, the Europeans must blunt the worst excesses of a wayward American leadership, while encouraging more responsible elements who eventually will return the United States to its traditional role as leader of the free world. This is a kind of role reversal from that played by Washington in the immediate post-World War II period.

In laying out his containment doctrine, George Kennan had a clear vision of the long arc of history — that to have effect, a policy to contain the Soviets would need to play out over many years. This should not be the case with today’s off-kilter United States. But patience is required. So is dynamic European leadership.

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Follow James on Twitter @JamesLBruno. James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.