The Transatlantic Leadership Void

Since the end of World War II, the United States, as the dominant European (and world) power, has piloted transatlantic security. But under President Donald Trump, the US isn’t doing much leading, and it is not always even clear who in Trump’s administration is really in charge.

WASHINGTON, DC – Transatlantic security today looks a lot like a ghost plane. With the “crew” incapacitated – that is, bereft of ideas or leadership – it is flying on autopilot until it inevitably hits something or runs out of fuel and comes crashing down. To avoid disaster, those in the cockpit need to wake up – and soon.

Since the end of World War II, the United States, as the dominant European (and world) power, has piloted transatlantic security. But under President Donald Trump, the US isn’t doing much leading. Indeed, it is not even clear who in Trump’s administration is really in charge any more. Today, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s apocryphal question – “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” – can just as easily be tossed back across the Atlantic.

When Trump came to power, America’s European allies (and much of the rest of the world) thought they knew the answer to that question. They hoped that, whatever bluster issued from the White House, the US would ultimately support the status quo. US policy, they told themselves, would be dictated not by Trump’s tweet storms, but by the more reliable “adults” in his government – Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state; H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second national security adviser; and James Mattis, Trump’s secretary of defense.

All are now gone. Mattis, the most recently departed, left after Trump’s abrupt announcement that he would withdraw all US troops from Syria – a major policy decision that was made flippantly and against Mattis’s advice and that of his Department of Defense. His scathing resignation letter excoriated Trump for not “treating allies with respect” or “being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors.” Mattis told Trump that “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”

Given Mattis’s rationale for leaving, one might have imagined that his resignation would at least make US policy more predictable. Rather than wonder whether the US would abandon NATO, as Trump suggested, or stand by it, as his administration’s senior officials promised, Europe could respond to a single message. That message might be unwelcome and dangerous, but at least others would know where they stand.

But the erratic, mixed messages have persisted – and even increased. On December 19, following a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” The next day, he tweeted: “Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy…because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us.”

Then, at the beginning of January, US National Security Adviser John Bolton was dispatched to the Middle East to reassure nervous allies – in particular, Israel – about Trump’s decision. These countries are concerned that an abrupt withdrawal of US forces will permit ISIS to survive and even recover, leave Kurdish forces that have been integral in the fight against ISIS exposed to Turkish attacks, and allow for unfettered forward positioning by Iran in Syria.

These are legitimate concerns – so legitimate, in fact, that Trump’s big Syria announcement was quickly walked back. A US withdrawal, Bolton declared, would be contingent on fully defeating ISIS and a Turkish guarantee not to attack America’s Kurdish allies.

Yet, with no adults around to tell them what to do, Trump’s administration failed to clear these new conditions with Turkey. An outraged Erdoğan canceled a planned meeting with Bolton to discuss the withdrawal. The Trump administration’s Syria policy is now an open question.

This was not the result of an oversight or disorganization in the Trump administration. Nor was it a case of ineffective or misguided leadership. What is happening to US foreign policy reflects a lack of any kind of leadership at all. At this point, no one knows what US policy is or even who is making it. Unsurprisingly, this has left the entire transatlantic community adrift.

Next month, the doyens of international politics and diplomacy will gather for the annual Munich Security Conference. While the event has grown over the years, and now covers global issues, its core remains the transatlantic community. The MSC thus represents an important opportunity to discuss openly the utter lack of leadership on transatlantic security.

Last year, the MSC chose as its theme the semi-hopeful “To the brink – and back?” This year, it should be “Is anyone at the wheel?” The Americans in the ballroom at Munich’s Hotel Bayerischer Hof may say yes. But they are not the ones in the cockpit.