“America First!” Means “Heads Up!” for the European Union

The European Union will face new challenges due to the plans of the Trump administration for the upcoming presidential term. They will call for a united stance on issues concerning geopolitical relations, security, trade and especially climate change. Daniel Gulda’s analysis evaluates what Europe has to expect from Trump’s most important cabinet members.

On 20th January 2017 the United States inaugurated their new president for the next four years to come. Now that the Oval Office in the White House is subject to new personnel, things start to get finally interesting. So far it has been hard to determine whether Trump’s more or less extreme plans on reforming the United States were to be taken seriously. Changes to previous foreign policy towards Europe and the rest of the world seem inevitable, but the dimensions of these changes have remained unclear. Accordingly, representatives from both allied nations as well as adversaries have been struggling to form solid expectations. One key remark to the president has always been the lack of experience and sensitivity towards foreign policy as the phone call with the Taiwanese president, undermining the US’ One China policy, has shown early after election. His arbitrary behavior makes it hard to predict what measures he is actually going to pull through. Certain is that he’ll put “America first”. However, the analysis of his appointed cabinet may help   determine whether Europe is actually to expect strict consequences from his predictions on foreign policy changes. Hence, I will lay out four major implications the EU will have to consider under Trump’s presidency in the following while evaluating the likelihood that the respective cabinet members follow suit.

On Russia: Loosening Sanctions and Acknowledging the Annexation of Crimea

One of the more exceptional takeaways from Trump’s way to election was his friendly stance towards Russia’s president Vladimir Putin in times of an all-time low in US-Russian relations ever since the end of the Cold War. Moreover, he indicated that the US should acknowledge Russia’s stance on Crimea and therefore loosen correspondingly imposed sanctions.[1] Such plans would bring the EU in an uncomfortable position, as the union is involved in resolving the crisis in Ukraine and imposed its own economic sanctions. Although the US involvement was relatively low here, the positions on the annexation of Crimea have always been consensual. More responsibility for the EU had already been a top priority in Brussels and many a capital in its member states; but that way, the questions concerning an appropriate posture will become more and more important. Geopolitical orientations will form in an unprecedented way as the triadic relationship has always consisted of a constant alliance of the West combined with a fluctuating role of Russia. Improving US-Russian and EU-Russian relations is certainly a good thing and it would be best if all three parties could improve their relations. But apart from Crimea, it is important to bear in mind the accusations of Russian influence in the recent US elections, the critical circumstances of its intervention in Syria and further aggressive behavior at the eastern and south-eastern borders of the European Union as well as in Georgia.

Next to the president, it’ll be the secretary of state who acts as the primary diplomat and is therefore the next figure to decide whether the above mentioned course may be taken after all. Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, is completely new to political offices just like Trump. Doubts can be raised on whether the businessman will act fully in neglect of any potential conflict of interests. His background suggests that he will act in conformity to Trump’s stance on Russia. Awarded by Putin with Russia’s Order of Friendship, he has had business interests in Russia through deals with ExxonMobil.[2] Tillerson is likely to promote moves towards the East. The sanctions that cut off deals to extract oil from promising Siberian oil fields clearly upset the CEO[3] and therefore it is hard to imagine that he will simply forget about his preceding 40 years of work, even if he’s claimed in his confirmation hearing that he would not be influenced by his past while serving the country.[4] Nevertheless, his statements at the hearing implied that he will invest time and effort into leaning towards Russia, which president Putin will embrace as another step towards destabilizing the already fractured European Union. Standing united in an appropriate manner as described above will be increasingly harder within a crumbling Europe.

The Future of NATO

A destabilized EU and the United States sympathizing with the main aggressor at its borders leave defensive strategies within the EU on shaky ground. To project power and strength Europe has been reliant on the NATO alliance immensely, especially the Baltic States.[5] Unfortunate for those, Trump has questioned said alliance because of disproportionate burden-sharing. In fact, only four members besides the United States stick to the requirement of spending at least 2% of their respective GDP on military and defense, namely Estonia, Greece, Poland and The United Kingdom.[6] Trump has underlined more than once that he would review the US role within the alliance. What this will actually mean is yet to be determined, but the credibility of full commitment towards NATO is lacking when the president is making promises towards Russia. Similar to the situation between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it is crucial towards defense strategy to signalize a credible “assured second strike” from a NATO perspective. That way Russia is deterred from any intention of committing a first strike or alternatively a similar scenario as the annexation of Crimea. This doesn’t mean that we are facing another Cold War but still: Being too soft on the matter may signalize to Russian troops that there is nothing to be afraid of when intervening NATO territory.

Raising the credibility of commitment however, is the appointment of recently retired marine general James Mattis as secretary of defense, who was allowed to take office by Congress (former military officials that want to hold such position within 7 years after serving, need an additional admission by both the Senate and House of Representatives). His record indicates a friendly position towards the defense alliance as he used to be a highly ranked general improving military strategy within NATO.[7] Moreover, during his confirmation hearing, he stated that Putin is trying “to break the North Atlantic alliance”.[8] Hence, Mattis signalized strong support for the alliance and underlined the important role of the US within it. Therefore, a significant withdrawal of US resources from its allies is unlikely. However, a push towards an increase of defense spending among allies will still be on the table and members like Germany have already laid out plans to meet the required 2% cap.[9]

TTIP and Future Trade Agreements

From an economic perspective, the EU will face hard times relying on plans that have been furnished for over a decade now. The planned free trade agreement, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), had already faced a long path of bureaucratic obstacles and strongly opposed critics, but now that a man who sees protectionist measures as the best solution for the economic growth and wellbeing of his nation is in charge, the highly controversial treaty is bound to be lost. Despite the fact that the United States is already the most important trade partner,[10] the EU will have to find ways on how to address further protectionist measures adequately while trying to figure out how to manage a successful Brexit with the best outcome for all.

Like many others among Trump’s administration, the future secretary of treasury, Steve Mnuchin, has worked for Goldman Sachs as an investment banker for 17 years and therefore tends to maintain the neoliberal status quo in the market structure. His record indicates that he promotes whatever helps the market flourish. Consequently, he announced plans to reduce corporate taxes within the US in order to incentivize companies to invest within the country. With Theresa May promising similar outlooks for the UK, the EU will have to think of strategies on how to stay competitive as an attractive option to invest in. Moreover, appointed commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, who will be responsible for forming economic policies, hinted that future agreements would be of bilateral nature and not multilateral. That means bad news for TTIP after all, even if the agreement may technically be of bilateral nature. However, it’s not like this is one of few problems the treaty faces. Additionally, despite negative comments by Ross concerning Britain’s decision to leave the EU prior to the US elections, plans for a trade agreement with the UK after a successful Brexit[11] seem likely and indicate that there is going to be a major shift of perspectives. Europe will have to work on an appropriate response to these developments.

Fighting Climate Change

A final major challenge, as so often, happens be climate change. Given its strong role in the world economy, the EU will have to concentrate even more on promoting its leading position in reducing global warming to a minimum. Trump’s comments on global warming, declaring it as a Chinese hoax, are highly discouraging for our future generations, especially since it’s just been a short glimpse of time since the Paris Climate Deal was sealed. Should the United States restrain from respecting the treaty’s conditions, it will mean increased need for efforts made by governmental as well as non-governmental actors from all over the world. Europe will be tempted to neglect moral instincts when the US puts business interests before environmental interests but will have to stay strong nevertheless.

The appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is Scott Pruitt. As a self-proclaimed advocate against the EPA, he has fought against several regulations that were to be imposed in the state of Oklahoma when he served as attorney general of the state.[12] In addition to his conflict with the agency, he is likely to run, the course of the confirmation hearing of Scott Pruitt implies he will not make any efforts in promoting the US’ important role in reducing greenhouse emissions.[13] This is highly critical for the fight against climate change, especially since the United States and China are the most important nations to encourage sustainable policies. The aspired success of the Paris Climate Deal’s goal of reducing global warming below 2 degrees[14] will face higher hurdles. Therefore, Europe needs take every action it can if it wants to reduce any further humanitarian crises to a minimum in the future. For, they will cause far more challenging movements of people than the current refugee situation.


Trump’s promises throughout his campaign are definitely to be taken seriously and the European Union has to find a coherent stance on how to address the challenges his presidency is to deliver. With Rex Tillerson as secretary of state the EU will face an unknown geopolitical state of affairs: The US and Russia are likely to form closer ties and that will raise problems on how to deal with past Russian misbehaviors and threats while guarding European principles and values. At the same time, the commitment towards NATO seems to have won a great supporter in James Mattis as secretary of defense, so the EU can count on cooperation to some extent. Still, the EU will face a hard time in designing future economic policies in light of Steve Mnuchin’s and Wilbur Ross’ plans on restructuring corporate taxes and trade agreements, especially during times of the Brexit. Last but not least, Scott Pruitt’s appointment as the head of environmental protection promises a withdrawal of US efforts to fight climate change and thus, the European Union is forced to address this issue in all seriousness in order to reduce further potential humanitarian crises.

Summarized: Donald Trump’s presidential campaign made several indications towards changes in foreign policy and therefore the European Union, among many, has been curious on what consequences to expect from changes to the status quo of international relations. Trump’s cabinet members and their backgrounds give reason to believe in an upcoming new geopolitical balance between Europe, the US and Russia and that may harm defense strategies despite an ongoing commitment. The already troubled TTIP will face another major challenge through new perspectives on trade and finally, Europe will have to make efforts in projecting a leading role in fighting climate change.  

[1] Pager, T. (2016): „Trump to look at recognizing Crimea as Russian territory, lifting sanctions“; http://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/trump-crimea-sanctions-russia-226292.

[2] Engel, P. (2016): „Trump’s pick for secretary of state has a giant conflict of interest hanging over his head“; http://www.businessinsider.de/rex-tillerson-exxon-mobil-russia-2016-12?r=US&IR=T.

[3] Koronowski, R. (2014): “New Sanctions Against Russia Could Deal Big Blow To ExxonMobil”; https://thinkprogress.org/new-sanctions-against-russia-could-deal-big-blow-to-exxonmobil-44269db3f165#.9j0y3ekot.

[4] Levitz, E. (2017): “Here’s a Liveblog of the Trump Presser, Tillerson and Sessions Hearings, and Any Other Insane Political News That Breaks Today”;


[5] Solovjova, J. (2016): “Is Russia really a threat to the Baltic states?”; http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/07/russia-threat-baltic-states-160707054916449.html.

[6] NATO (2016): “Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries (2009-2016)”; Bruxelles, Belgique; Public Diplomacy Division; http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2016_07/20160704_160704-pr2016-116.pdf.

[7] Ray, M. (2017): “James Mattis”; https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-Mattis.

[8] Ackerman, S. / Gambino, L. (2017): “Russia is trying to smash Nato, James Mattis says in confirmation hearing”; https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/12/james-mattis-mike-pompeo-confirmation-hearings-russia.

[9] www.zeit.de (2016): “Bundeswehr soll mindestens 20 Milliarden Euro mehr bekommen“; http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2016-10/angela-merkel-verteidigung-ausgaben-bundeswehr.

[10] European Commission (2016): “Client and Supplier Countries of the EU28 in Merchandise Trade”; Directorate General for Trade; http://trade.ec.europa.eu/doclib/docs/2006/september/tradoc_122530.pdf.

[11] Gray, F. (2017): “Why Donald Trump looks like just the friend Britain needs”; http://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/01/why-donald-trump-looks-like-just-the-friend-britain-needs/.

[12] Davenport, C. (2017): “Scott Pruitt, Testifying to Lead E.P.A., Criticizes Environmental Rules”; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/politics/scott-pruitt-testifying-to-lead-epa-criticizes-environmental-rules.html.

[13] Meyer, R. (2017): “As the Planet Warms, Trump’s EPA Pick Hedges”; https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/as-the-planet-warms-senators-shrug/513746/.

[14] www.ec.europa.eu (2017): “Paris Agreement”; http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/international/negotiations/paris_en.

Daniel Gulda
Daniel Gulda
Daniel Gulda studiert Philosophy & Economics in Bayreuth. Zuletzt verbrachte er ein Auslandssemester an der Pusan National University in Südkorea. Stetig motiviert, den gesellschaftlichen Diskurs auf relevante Themen zu lenken, setzte er sich dort für die Menschenrechte der LGBT-Gemeinschaft ein, indem er eine Konferenz zur Lage in Südkorea an seiner Universität organisierte. Daniel legt Wert auf eine gründliche Analyse der Europäischen Union und will komplexe Lösungen gestalten, anstatt nur Kritik zu üben. Seinen Schwerpunkt legt er auf die transatlantischen Beziehungen und deren Auswirkungen auf die EU.

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