Consider it detente. The United States and the European Union, seemingly at the brink of a trade war until Wednesday, managed to calm things down after a meeting between President Donald Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. At a joint news conference in the White House's Rose Garden that afternoon, Trump and Juncker announced plans to de-escalate the crisis that was sparked by Trump's decision this year to slap tariffs on aluminum and steel exports from the E.U. The two agreed to hold off on further rounds of tariffs and committed to work toward a new bilateral trade deal.
In June, Juncker had declared Trump’s decision to impose metal import tariffs “a bad day for world trade.” On Wednesday, he hailed “a good day for the transatlantic partnership.”
Jean-Claude Juncker tweeted "I came for a deal, we made a deal. The EU continues to stand up for free and fair trade...."
The friendliness of the moment came as something of a surprise. Earlier in the month, Trump conducted a bruising week-long tour through Europe, during which he branded the European Union a “foe,” seemed to back the far-right opposition in a host of major European countries and alarmed allies with a chummy appearance alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin. On trade, Trump has largely stuck to his protectionist guns, casting his nation as a victim of the economic order it largely created — no matter the extensive catalog of statistics presented to him by experts and diplomats pointing to the contrary.
"Until Wednesday afternoon," as The Washington Post reported, "several of Trump's senior economic advisers had believed the president was on the verge of escalating the trade war by declaring 25 percent tariffs on nearly $200 billion in foreign-made automobiles."
By Thursday morning, though, it seemed the crisis had been averted. "Objectively this a good news, that we avoided so far tariffs on cars," a senior E.U. diplomat said to The Post's Quentin Aries and James McAuley.
But there is still plenty of skepticism about the durability and significance of Juncker's breakthrough with Trump. It seems likely that backing down from a trade war is more a response to the entreaties of Republican leaders fearing electoral defeat in November than a reflection of any genuine shift in Trump's thinking. "Polls published yesterday show that Trump has become a major drag on Republican candidates in three Midwestern states that are heavily dependent on agriculture and host marquee races this year," my colleague James Hohmann noted Thursday.
The spirit of Trump and Juncker's joint statement also seemed decidedly un-Trumpian. "The vows that Trump and Juncker made to work toward zero tariffs and zero subsidies on industrial goods looks a lot like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a deal negotiated by the Obama administration that Trump had previously pushed aside," my colleagues Heather Long and Steve Mufson noted. "Is Trump really ready to embrace it now when the only major change is for Europe to buy more soybeans?"
The E.U. may be no more committed itself. Maria Demertzis, the deputy director of Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank, told The Post that Wednesday's move didn't reflect the E.U.'s wider efforts to counteract the White House. Officials in Brussels have sought to cultivate new ties elsewhere, including inking a major free-trade deal with Japan, and they have contested the Trump administration's tariffs at the World Trade Organization.
"If you go and strike a deal with Mr. Trump, you have to think how that fits into the strategy," Demertzis said. "Striking a deal would do damage, in my view, to what you're trying to do on a broader level."
If nothing else, Constanze Stelzenmuller of the Brookings Institution said in a conversation with us, "it's the first time this president and this administration has acknowledged the European Union and European Commission as a negotiating partner on equal terms." Still, she added, things could be easily derailed by an angry Trump tweet in the future.
Trump tweeted "Obviously the European Union, as represented by @JunckerEUand the United States, as represented by yours truly, love each other!"
After leaving Trump and the White House on Wednesday, Juncker addressed a room of Washington wonks and diplomats at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. There, the former prime minister of Luxembourg made the pronouncements of solidarity and friendship that are de rigueur for European leaders visiting the United States. He extolled the sacrifices of American soldiers who liberated the continent in World War II and hailed the prosperous peace that Washington helped build out of the ashes of that conflict.
"The relationship between the United States and European Union is a unique one," Juncker said. "It is built on shared history, shared values, shared interests." He said he had gifted Trump a picture of a military cemetery in Luxembourg where Gen. George S. Patton Jr. is buried. "Dear Donald," Juncker inscribed the photo, "let's remember our common history."
But as far as Europe goes, the abiding theme of Trump's tenure has been his willingness to call into question this "common history" and these "shared values." The precepts extolled by Juncker matter little to a president who expresses distaste for multilateral deals, rejects joint action on climate change, scaremongers over migration and tacitly backs the far-right parties who are growing in clout as living memories of Nazism and fascism fade.
While in Europe, Trump suggested that immigrants were changing the "fabric of Europe" for the worse - rhetoric reviled by the European establishment but welcomed by an increasingly empowered far right.
"One of the most important benchmarks is the clarity created by the president and the president's ambassador to Germany about who this administration's preferred allies are," said Stelzenmuller, referring to Richard Grenell, the U.S. envoy in Berlin who has taken a conspicuously friendly stance toward anti-immigrant parties and politicians on the continent. "Their emotional affections and convictions lie with the European alt-right."
That poses a rupture in transatlantic ties that no single Rose Garden photo op, or promised purchases of soybeans, could ever resolve.
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.