Few ideas are as holy in President Donald Trump’s international liturgy as the concept of national sovereignty. His National Security Strategy speaks of a “beautiful vision — a world of strong, sovereign, and independent nations,” and the Trump himself is keen to repeat some form of “sovereignty” as often as he can. Sovereignty to Trump seems to mean that the U.S. can do whatever it wants without taking the interests of others into account. It’s the ultimate embodiment of “America first.” In reality, other actors have the right to their sovereignty, which is what the National Security Strategy proudly proclaims.
But Trump’s decision to try to blow up the nuclear deal with Iran is, in its execution, nothing less than a massive assault on the sovereignty of others — most notably that of Europe. The president has now directed maximum economic sanctions to be applied. But with few exceptions (Boeing is the one of significance), these sanctions don’t really affect American business or activities. They have already, in one way or the other, been blocked from business with Iran.
Instead, the brunt of the sanctions offensive directly affects business in Europe. For instance, in a tweet, the new U.S. ambassador to Germany was quick to give orders to German companies on how they should behave. This is nothing less than a massive assault on the sovereignty of European states and the European Union. They are deprived of their right to decide on their policies and actions by brutal dictates from a foreign — and allegedly friendly — country. This is utterly unacceptable from a European point of view, as well as a violation of the preaching of Trump himself. It relegates Europe to just abiding by and implementing policies with which it profoundly disagrees.
We have been here before. Once upon a time, the U.S. tried to enforce so-called secondary sanctions on European companies doing business with Cuba, among others. But the E.U. reacted by using blocking regulation, prohibiting companies from following dictates from the U.S. Eventually, a face-saving solution to the dispute was found, and the U.S. had to back down.
European economies can certainly survive without trade with Iran, but European sovereignty in foreign affairs can hardly survive passive compliance with the new dictates from the White House. Compliance would mean few would trust the E.U. as a sovereign actor in foreign and security policies. I guess few tears would be shed in the White House if that were to happen. Key people there are known to despise the efforts of European states to try to work together within the E.U. framework.
Beyond the deep disagreements on policies relating to climate, trade and Iran, it would be most unwise to underestimate the long-term damage to the transatlantic relationship caused by Washington’s assault on Europe. Strong voices are now demanding that Europe stand up for its sovereignty by being more confrontational with Trump. It’s tricky, and unlikely to be completely successful, but possible. I certainly disagree with Trump’s policies on the Iran nuclear agreement, but I’m even more opposed to his assault on Europe’s sovereignty.
Carl Bildt is a former prime minister of Sweden and a contributing columnist for the Washington Post.