Trump tramples Europe
17 Jul 2018|

After a week of hosting US President Donald Trump for a variety of visits and summits, Europe’s leaders may be excused for paraphrasing Charles Dickens’s summary of another tumultuous time in their continent’s history: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’.

On the positive side of the ledger, the NATO alliance survived Trump’s antics last week. But as the Europeans know only too well, this may well be a lull in a bigger transatlantic storm. One thing is clear: wisdom is most certainly not what will decide Trump’s relations with Europe.

Following the disarray at the recent G7 summit in Canada, all European governments steeled themselves for a showdown at the NATO gathering in Brussels last week. And nobody was in any doubt about the main source of contention: Trump’s fury with the failure of many European nations to boost their defence budgets.

The US president has a point. Since NATO agreed three years ago that all its members would boost their defence expenditure to at least 2% of their gross domestic product, only five countries—the US, Britain and the relatively small nations of Estonia, Latvia and Greece—have hit the target. More egregiously still, Germany devotes only 1.2% of its GDP to defence and has no serious plans to lift spending substantially in the coming years—not because it lacks the money (the country is enjoying the highest budget surpluses in decades), but simply because there are no German votes in advocating higher defence spending.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg tried hard to avoid a showdown, by pointing out that although the Europeans have a long way to go, they increased their defence spending from US$272 billion a year in 2014 to US$312 billion last year, a trend which Stoltenberg hastened to attribute (inaccurately but with an eye to political expediency) to Trump’s valiant efforts. But the US president refused to take the elegant way out of trouble, and insisted on a public bust-up, dismissing alliance members as ‘delinquent’.

Trump also appeared to be changing the goalposts. According to the original NATO commitment, the deadline for reaching 2% is 2024. But Trump insisted that member states should meet the target ‘immediately’, something that would require all of them to rip up their national budgets.

Trump also invited ridicule with his idea that the target should be doubled to 4% of GDP. Not only is this absurd (no European military could spend such funds efficiently even if they were allocated), but the US itself doesn’t spend that much. This year’s the Pentagon’s budget is around 3.5% of America’s GDP.

European leaders ended up being used as props in Trump’s efforts to portray himself as triumphant. ‘I let them know that I was extremely unhappy with what was happening, and they have substantially upped their commitment’, he claimed at the end of the summit. ‘The additional money that they’re willing to put up has been really amazing’, he added.

Amazing indeed, for there were no new commitments, and no new money. Trump merely presented as an ‘achievement’ increases in defence expenditure that had already been secured, mostly under Barack Obama’s presidency.

The episode may come across as comical, but its implications for Europe are deadly serious. Far from strengthening the case for further defence expenditure, Trump’s back-handed approach only made it more difficult to achieve. German Chancellor Angela Merkel would find it almost impossible to persuade her socialist coalition partners to boost the military budget just because the US president banged the conference table. And an alliance which should have concentrated on charting its future course, defining its value as a deterrence against Russian aggression and, in particular, developing its mobility and deployability capabilities instead wasted an entire summit in vacuous disputes about corporate account ledgers. So, what Trump probably considered a cost-free publicity stunt may end up costing NATO dearly.

Undaunted, Trump also applied his shock-and-awe diplomacy to Britain, his next port of call on his European tour. Yet again, his British hosts tried to avoid any offence or controversy. The president’s schedule was kept deliberately sparse, and he was confined largely to Windsor Castle and a variety of other grand country houses—the sort of places which are easily sealed off from noisy demonstrators or prurient journalists.

Nevertheless, Trump still contrived to give a newspaper interview in which he suggested that Boris Johnson, who recently resigned as foreign secretary and is widely regarded as a key opponent to Prime Minister Theresa May, ‘would make a great prime minister’, a coarse example of political mischief-making.

More importantly, Trump also implied that he disagreed with the British government’s conduct of the ongoing separation negotiations from the European Union. It later transpired that Trump advised May to ‘sue’ the EU, rather than negotiate with it. How, where and on what basis was never explained.

The best that can be said about the president’s trip to Britain is that it was largely devoid of substance, and mercifully short; he spent much of the weekend playing golf on his Scottish properties.

It’s been obvious for some time that the current US president has no understanding of what NATO is for, and no feeling for or interest in the historical framework of his country’s security relations with Europe. But what became clearer after this trip is that his opposition to multinational alliances isn’t driven merely by ignorance. He seems to believe that, far from being force-multipliers, alliances are an encumbrance on the US, and America’s interests are best served by either subjecting them to total US control or breaking them up.

The president’s threat to ‘walk away’ from Europe if his views aren’t accepted and his remarks that he could pull the US out of NATO without congressional approval are bad enough; worse still is his off-the-cuff remark calling the EU a ‘foe’ to his country—an extraordinary statement which upends more than half a century of US policy supporting European integration.

The world will have to get used to Trump the Wrecker, and the Europeans, who have benefited most from established cooperative structures with the US, are the first to be confronted with this new fact. As Dickens aptly put it, ‘it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity’.