America, Europe and angst of broken trust

Updated 12 May 2018

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TRUST is important in personal relationships. It is the basis of strong friendships and resilient marriages. Trust is the key to successful business deals even though handshakes have to be backed up by signatures and legally-binding contracts. And trust is important in international relations.

States that trust each other can work together and live in peace. Mistrust leads to tension, confrontation and war.

Global stability is anchored in trust that international agreements and treaties will not be broken, promises will be kept and commitments made to other nations on open trade, controlling weapons or fighting poverty will be implemented.

So what to make of a world where mistrust and suspicion appear to be the new normal?

Here in Europe, the focus has always been on managing tensions with Russia, Turkey and China. Europeans often talk about the “strategic mistrust” existing in the EU’s relations with Russia under Vladimir Putin, with Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan and — albeit to a somewhat lesser degree — with China under Xi Jinping.

And what about the US? Only a year ago, any question to European policymakers on which country they trusted most would have resulted in an almost unanimous support for America as Europe’s most trusted friend.

For almost everyone across Europe, the US is the one country with which Europe has most in common; it’s a like-minded state, with shared values and often, shared interests.

Or at least it used to be. European policymakers are reeling from US President Donald Trump’s decision to turn his back on the Iran nuclear deal — also known as the Joint Compre­hensive Plan of Action — reneging on commitments made in the Paris Clim­ate Agreement and threats to multilateral governance structures, including the World Trade Organisation.

For now it’s heartbreak time. Europeans are grieving over the repeated betrayal of their friendship by the one ally that they believed they could always count on, but who now appears determined not only to trample on their friendship and destroy their trust but also seems hell-bent on shattering a global order it helped to construct.

Anger and resolve

But amid the tears, there is also anger — and resolve.

Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, insists that Europe will remain committed to the full and effective implementation of an agreement which she describes as “one of the “biggest achievements diplomacy has ever delivered”.

The EU will work with Iran and other nations, including Russia and China, to keep it alive, she says.

“The nuclear deal with Iran is the culmination of 12 years of diplomacy. It belongs to the entire international community. It has been working and is delivering on its goal,” Mogherini said in reaction to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement.

The US move is also a personal affront not only to Mogherini as she has spent much of her working hours on the Iranian question but also towards French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who travelled to Washington recently in a last-minute bid to change President Trump’s mind.

America’s apparent disavowal of the transatlantic alliance is also a much-needed wake-up call for Europeans to re-energise their plans for security and defence, upgrade their network of diplomatic partnerships and to stop — as one European expert put — their “servility” towards Washington.

It’s not just Europe’s credibility that is at stake, however. Europe stands much to lose from any increase in tensions and more violence in the Middle East. The arrival of any more refugees from the Middle East will put additional pressure on EU governments which are already straining to welcome and integrate those who have already fled the conflict in Syria.

The weeks ahead are going to be crucial. Europeans are worried that their companies in Iran will be hit by the new US sanctions. There is concern that the hardliners in Tehran who oppose the JCPOA will be heartened by the US move and ask Iran to scupper the deal.

And of course there are also worries that North Korean leader Kim Jung Un may start having second thoughts about denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula if the Iranian project starts unravelling.

Some in Brussels may take heart from the fact that the US President is known to change his mind. Trump denounced the Nato military alliance as “obsolete” last year, but then changed his mind.

He may not be a fan of the EU, but has stopped calling on other European countries to follow in Britain’s footsteps and leave the bloc.

Such flip-flop has encouraged some like Britain’s Theresa May to curry favour. Others like Merkel have rolled their eyes in disbelief while Macron tried to bromance his American counterpart.

All to no avail.

Europeans used to believe — and hope — that Trump’s erratic presidency was just a temporary blip that they could wait out. No longer.

America’s Trump no longer shares Europe’s values and certainly doesn’t care about Europe’s interests. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2018