Will Trump's Trade War Finally Break America's Close Relationship With Europe?

As the European Union braces for trade tariffs on its steel and aluminum exports to the U.S., imposed by President Donald Trump under his hardball "America first" economic policy, Europe is questioning the strength of Washington's commitment to the transatlantic alliance.

Trump talked the talk during his first year in office, threatening to overturn old assumptions and agreements, but did little about it. Now, in his second year as president, Trump is walking the walk, putting his campaign rhetoric into action. And Europe is feeling the impact.

The EU said it would retaliate against Trump's punitive tariffs with its own and accused his administration of bullying it on trade. Europe wants to avert a full-blown trade war, but the risk of a Pyrrhic escalation is real, something markets fear.

The trade dispute between the U.S. and Europe is just one issue of many to erupt under the Trump administration, among them the president's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, both of huge importance to the EU.

Trump Macron
President Donald Trump walks with French President Emmanuel Macron at Mount Vernon, the estate of first U.S. President George Washington, in Mount Vernon, Virginia, on April 23. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images

He also scrapped the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a nascent free trade deal between the U.S. and the EU.

And Trump has made clear that NATO—which he once called "obsolete" though later affirmed his support of the defense alliance—cannot rely as much on American leadership and resources as in years gone by, urging members, many in Europe, to up their own military spending.

So do the metals tariffs simply underline a new reality from Brussels to Berlin, Budapest to Bucharest: that Europe is no longer America's premier ally?

The bonds between Europe and America are too strong and deep to be terminally threatened by the transient policies of single administrations, said Dr. Leslie Vinjamuri, head of the U.S. and Americas program at Chatham House, a foreign affairs think tank in London.

But these intervening years will put a strain that relationship and possibly alter it for good, well beyond the Trump administration.

"When you leave home for eight years, you don't come back and expect everything to be the same," Vinjamuri told Newsweek. "But at the same time, the shared interests and the reasons for working together transatlantically are just so overwhelmingly strong, regardless of what anybody says about the economic opportunities in Asia and other parts of the world."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said America is no longer reliable enough to Europe as a partner and suggested that Europe forge its own path forward largely independent of Washington.

At a recent summit in Brussels, European Commision First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said that "some things in transatlantic relations that we never thought would change are being challenged: the issues of trade and security.

"This is the first administration that thinks it is in the American interest to have a divided Europe rather than a united one. This poses a real challenge for Europe."

French President Emmanuel Macron made overtures to Trump during his recent visit to the U.S., and in a speech to Congress warned America away from isolationism lest the Western world "inevitably and severely undermine the liberal order we built after World War II."

Europe still wants America as a robust partner. And in truth, America needs Europe to achieve its own strategic goals.

Dana Allin, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy and transatlantic affairs at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank, told Newsweek that "of course some relationship will survive; it's the character of the relationship that matters."

Allin said it was Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, agreed in 2015, that came as the biggest blow to Europe. It called into question the durability of American policy from one administration to the next, crushing trust and demonstrating that Washington policy is fickle.

"You can see in the tone of European leaders that they're not mincing words about it. They consider it almost as though the United States is acting like a rogue state," Allin said.

The Iran deal also exposes the negative side of American power in terms of European interests. Europe maintains that it is committed to the Iran deal even without American involvement. But in practice, the deal is extremely difficult to uphold without Washington.

"A key element of the deal was sanctions relief," said Allin. "America threatens to sanction European companies for doing business with Iran. And European companies look at the relative size of the American market and the Iranian market and say it's no question, we have to appease the United States.

"So these structural connections are elements of American power that are being misused in a way that is very damaging to European interests and foreign policy commitments."

Trump announces US pullout from Iran nuclear deal
President Donald Trump in the White House on May 8. Trump walked away from what he called the “worst deal ever”: the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by former President Barack Obama. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Though he believes it's unlikely, Allin said Iran could now pursue a nuclear program, risking war with America. That would put the transatlantic alliance to its biggest test yet. And there is a recent precedent with Iraq, which divided Europe—France was strongly opposed, while Britain joined the fight—and strained relations with Washington.

"We return to the Iraq War scenario, except America will be in a much worse situation in terms of trying to gather European and other international support," Allin said.

America's attempt to move away from Europe actually began before Trump. President Obama had set out to shift his administration's strategic focus toward Asia and reduce American involvement in the conflicts and crises of the Middle East, Vinjamuri said, but he did so with a subtlety that is uncharacteristic of the boorish Trump White House.

"[Obama] didn't really manage to do any of those things," said Vinjamuri. "But what he did do was he worked out that both of those objectives required working with Europe, certainly on questions having to do with the Middle East and Iran. So in the end, he came back to Europe."

There are also long-standing bilateral ties between the U.S. and the countries of Europe. Relations existed before the EU and it doesn't contain all the countries of Europe. It's just one mechanism—albeit the biggest and most powerful—for relations.

"There's just so many layers that tie the U.S.-U.K., the U.S.-Europe, the U.S.-Germany together, the idea that it would be forever eroded by Donald Trump is, I think, fanciful," Vinjamuri said.

"Bilateral relationships will remain strong. I guess the big question is the EU. For transatlantic relations, that is a very important question, but it's only one question. It's not the only question."

What's more, America and the EU are facing similar threats from populism and nativism. Trump himself is a product of that turbulence and shift in public sentiment.

Euroskeptic forces are on the rise in the EU, creating fears that others will follow the U.K. out the door in their own versions of Brexit, which Trump has supported vocally, to the chagrin of Brussels. Italy is the most recent concern.

But the challenge of overcoming these populist forces could end up pushing the U.S. and Europe closer together again in the coming years.

"The solution isn't to defect from your closest friend who can help you get through and come up with manageable solutions. It's the reverse," Vinjamuri said. "If the European Union were to become less than what it is, I think that would make America's significance in Europe greater."

President Donald Trump speaks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council. REUTERS/Ian Langsdon/POOL

Allin pointed to long-term demographic changes in America—such as the growing number of Hispanics, and millennials soon outnumbering baby boomers—shifting its public leftward toward a European outlook on issues such as welfare, climate change and foreign policy.

Those trends still exist irrespective of Trump's rise and bring the potential for greater ideological and policy alignment with Europe. "We didn't imagine those demographic trends. They're real," said Allin.

But with populist upsurges on both sides of the Atlantic, from left and right on the political spectrum, there is the danger that both sides of the water will be pushed toward a less internationalist policy. "And they may consider these ties less sacred than the postwar generation did," Allin said.

For now, Europe has to ride out the throes of Trump's presidency.

"It's undoubtedly the case that Europe is going to spend the duration of Trump's presidency struggling to work out how to respond while keeping in place as much as possible the fundamentals that underpin that relationship, which is key," said Vinjamuri.

"You can't walk away from America when America provides your security. And it's such an essential economic power. There's still something that's fundamental and shared at a much deeper level than just any two leaders—and it will outlast them."