The spectacle of an American president breaking trust with NATO allies as he tries to avoid impeachment is hard to grasp. When will it all end?
MILAN — Now it’s impeachment. To many of the world’s ordinary citizens, not well versed in American constitutional procedures, it means one thing only: Donald Trump, 45th president of the United States, is accused of serious foul play. Pressuring the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on a political rival’s son? Unbelievable. Is the impeachment investigation, which took shape as October yielded to November, an attempt to “overturn” the 2016 presidential election? The European far right will say that, of course. But most people in Italy — and in Europe — will sit back and watch the show. Without fully understanding it. Nor enjoying it.
A few days earlier in October came the announcement that the United States would abandon the Kurds, their (and our) allies in the fight against the Islamic State, which has wreaked carnage on London, Berlin, Paris, Nice, Brussels and several other European cities. That the Kurds had sacrificed 11,000 men and women didn’t seem to matter. In his “great and unmatched wisdom”— his own words — Mr. Trump gave Turkey the green light to invade Syria, kick out the Kurds, and create a buffer zone. With Greece and Italy just across the sea, a new stream of refugees can be expected. So far, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has played the part of a well-paid gatekeeper, but he made it clear he will not tolerate any criticism, let alone a European intervention. Vladimir Putin’s Russia was quick to spot the opportunity: as soon as America retreated, its troops advanced.
All this has left an odd feeling in Italy and southern Europe, that we’ve arrived at a historical watershed and America’s leader has just opened the floodgates to let the water go wherever it wants. The military and geopolitical consequences of America’s actions are important, of course, but there is more. There is a feeling that we — like the Kurds, in a way — must fend for ourselves in what else may come.
This sense of being on our own is a novel one. In the last 75 years, 13 presidents occupied and exited the White House, each with his own plans for Europe. They had hopes, they scored successes, they suffered disappointments. And Europe changed itself significantly after the Second World War — from a bellicose, divided continent to a peaceful community of countries.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, created in 1949, ensured that this new Europe and the United States were firm partners. Quarreling, sometimes, like an old married couple. But loyal to each other, when it mattered most.
Is this History 101? It is. But three years into the Trump presidency, the feeling is that we have to go back to basics. The old couple has not divorced, not yet. But these days Europe and America look at each other in bewilderment. The fact that we share history, people, habits and customs, and faith in democracy seems to us not to matter anymore.
President Trump’s declarations about America’s premier partnership since the 1940s have often been shocking (“The European Union was formed in order to take advantage of us on trade.” “Nobody treats us much worse than the E.U.” “I think the European Union is a foe.”), but they sounded like the braggadocio of a show-business president, not to be taken literally. They did not prepare us for what was coming.
When Mr. Trump decided to withdraw American troops from northern Syria, leaving Europeans to deal with the fallout, we felt betrayed. No warning, no consultation. Trust has been shattered.
Rebuilding trust won’t be easy, but it is vital. Because the United States, for most Europeans, is not just a powerful ally. It is a benchmark. Our achievements and our shortcomings — the economy, personal freedoms, health care, the arts, you name it — are measured against the American yardstick. Even those who dislike America look to it. In a way, anti-Americanism is an admission of love, however tragic the current mistreatment feels. You don’t argue with a nation and a culture you care nothing about.
The United States’ outreach is such that its standing and reputation in the world, although dented, will survive the current president. But have no doubt: Italy — together with the rest of Europe, and perhaps more so, being on the fringe of it — feels a little lost. And lonely, somehow.
The United States has long been our big brother — reassuring for most of us, imposing for some — and now it is absent, preoccupied by Mr. Trump and his destructive excesses. However much Mr. Putin would like it, Russia cannot be a substitute. It lacks the soft power, the language, the wealth, the skills. In Europe, America won’t be replaced or forgotten easily. But it must come back into the family of sensible democracies, where it belongs.