The behavior of the Trump administration challenges logic. Everyone sees that for the United States, the central strategic issue is the relationship with China. It is a geostrategic rival doubled by an increasingly serious economic competitor, including in what is the heart of US competitiveness. Xi Jinping began formulating an alternative international relations conception to the liberal order that the United States has been promoting for three quarters of a century. And yet Mr Trump attacks Europe and seems to have made it a priority to undermine the foundations of American leadership.
This leadership was based on an original and fairly explicit contract: in exchange for a preeminent role in setting the rules of the international game, the United States forced itself to act most often within the framework of these rules. This was particularly true of international trade, since it was governed by the rules of multilateralism. This was also the case in finance or regulation. Even in monetary matters, where he enjoyed an “exorbitant privilege”, Washington submitted to the principles of the G7. Of course, he sometimes deviated from it. But rarely enough for the contract to hold.
It is this contract that is called into question. After the release of the climate agreement, after unilateral statements on the dollar exchange rate, the commercial offensive was triggered. The Trump administration is committed to a transactional approach to economic relations. The multilateral contract follows the purely bilateral balance of power.
The European Union is obviously particularly shaken up. She herself built on the law, she always carried a conception of international relations based on the rules. As much as the tariffs imposed on her, she saw this change in philosophy as aggression.
The situation is paradoxical because, in essence, the EU is joining the United States on a whole range of grievances against China. Like them, she blames him for distorting competition, taking liberties with intellectual property and targeting strategic acquisitions in the technological fields. Like them, it considers that the WTO rules that grant it a privileged status as a developing country are outdated. It could therefore be for Washington a weighty economic ally.
So why? Ubu, or Machiavelli? Should the trumpets of the Trump administration be attributed to a mixture of irrationality, inculture and incoherence? This is what he criticizes, in the United States itself, most analysts. Or is it necessary to seek a strategic aim behind its strange behavior?
The only logic that can be found is that the Trump administration aims to prevent the European Union from positioning itself as the third player in a US-China-Europe game and to re-establish towards Europe an American primacy that no longer relies on leadership, but on strength. The EU, which still has the world’s largest market for goods and services, is inherently opposed to a purely transactional approach to international relations. For Mr. Trump, it is an obstacle. He does not want a partner, but vassals.
Conspiracy theory? “We love the countries of the European Union,” said Donald Trump on June 28. But the European Union, of course, was created to take advantage of the United States. And we can not let that happen. ” No American president has ever presented the EU as a plot to weaken the United States nor suggested that the US interest would be to deal bilaterally with European countries.
For the European Union, this is a pivotal moment. Events force him to redefine his goals. It was built under the protection of the United States and in the context of the international system they dominated. For this reason, its external dimensions have always been seconds. The significance of the current crisis is that it no longer holds: Europe must urgently set its strategic direction towards distant, if not hostile, United States and emerging powers devoid of tenderness. At the same time, it must decide what it intends to do for its security, border protection and neighborhood policy.
If it fails to redefine European public goods for a world fundamentally different from that of a decade ago, the EU will not survive as a meaningful institution. If it succeeds, it will find in the eyes of European citizens an objective and a legitimacy eroded by years of economic and political setbacks.