What Trump understands
22 Mar 2017| and

It’s tempting to dismiss Trump’s election as a bizarre aberration of the digital age—a triumph of celebrity over reason. But it’s also clear that Trump succeeded because he appealed to voters on issues long ignored by the mainstream.

The dominant factor underlying Trump’s win is that the US economy is oversupplied with unskilled and semi-skilled labour. Too simplistic? Perhaps. But the core tenets of Trump’s economic agenda—infrastructure spending, trade protection, resurrection of labour-intensive manufacturing, immigration cuts and business tax relief—are all focused on closing the gap between the supply and demand for labour.

Trump responded to a trend hidden in plain view. The economic malaise affecting middle class America has been apparent for years; workforce participation has been falling, income inequality has been widening and health outcomes have been declining. So why did it take Mr Trump to turn the resulting discontent into votes? One factor was his willingness to challenge orthodoxies that others dared not touch. Among other things, Trump rejected long-held assumptions about the merits of free trade. And many American workers agree; apparently $4.99 t-shirts at Walmart don’t compensate for job insecurity and stagnant wages.

That’s not to say that Trump’s economic agenda is coherent or prudent, or even that he has diagnosed the problem correctly. Not only does he exaggerate the role of free trade, but his proposed cure is more likely to hurt than help workers. But credit where credit’s due: by announcing that the free-trade emperor has no clothes, Trump harnessed widespread voter disenchantment.

What else might have Trump seen that the mainstream was unable or unwilling to acknowledge?

Well, another theme of Mr Trump’s campaign was the obsolescence of alliances. ‘Crazy talk,’ you say. And the appointment of a triumvirate of scholar-generals to key posts has persuaded many that US foreign policy is reverting to normal, especially after face-to-face reassurances in Tokyo, Seoul and Munich.

We’re not so sure. Although Secretary Mattis told the Munich Security Conference that ‘Article V is a bedrock commitment’, he also told NATO defence ministers in Brussels: ‘If your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense.’ It’s not the first time that the US has complained about NATO free-riding, but it’s the first time that the US has threatened to ‘moderate its commitment’. And the threat was delivered with some theatre. Mattis said, ‘I owe it to you to give clarity on the political reality in the United States and to state the fair demand from my country’s people in concrete terms’.

Lest there be any doubt on the administration’s position, following a less-than-warm meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump tweeted that Germany owes the US ‘vast sums of money’ for NATO. Mattis’ threat and Trump’s statements portend a fundamental change in US policy towards Europe. More importantly, they reflect an underlying shift in the strategic landscape that the US foreign policy establishment has been unwilling to face up to.

NATO was created for the specific purpose of prosecuting the Cold War. It’d be a remarkable coincidence if it continued to serve US interests 70 years later. The Cold War Soviets represented an existential threat to the United States. Not a threat to some nebulous notion of ‘US interests’, but to the very survival of the US and its people. So the US was willing to stake everything—New York, Washington, Des Moines—to keep the Soviets in check.

The depth of Washington’s Cold War interests allowed other NATO members to free-ride on the US. Put simply, generations of Americans subsidised Europe’s defence. But because money’s fungible, it’s equally true that US taxpayers subsidised Europe’s generous pensions and social spending. Europe could free-ride because the US had no choice but to protect its own interests.

But today’s Russia isn’t the Soviet Union, and Putin isn’t a threat on the scale of Stalin or Brezhnev. While the Soviets stood ready to push NATO into the Channel, Russia poses a threat only to weaker ex-Soviet territories. Consequently, the US threat to ‘moderate its commitment’ was credible in a way that it wouldn’t have been during the Cold War. Somewhat ironically, Russia’s weakness rather than its strength is undermining NATO solidarity.

But, again, there’s a big difference between recognising something and formulating an effective response. There was an inherent contradiction in Mattis’ message to NATO; the US commitment can’t be simultaneously unwavering and up for negotiation. So what gives?

Orthodoxy holds that US interests in Europe are undiminished despite the end of the Cold War. That’s been a harmless fiction to maintain for most of the post-Cold War era, when defence spending was falling and Russia was quiescent. But with Russia raising the potential costs, the tensions inherent in the US underwriting of European security were bound to surface—especially under populist American leadership.

The United States is unlikely to withdraw from, or openly abrogate, the NATO treaty. That would undermine its alliance credibility elsewhere. But it can certainly reposition its forces so that, in a crisis, its response would be too little too late, and it can also be supine to Russian assertiveness in Europe.

The horror scenario for Europe would be an implicit grand bargain, in which Trump concedes a degree of Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe so that he can focus US strategic efforts on dealing with China—a “pivot” on steroids. It would almost be a photo-negative of Nixon’s deal with Mao in 1972, which also happens to be the last time that the US abandoned allies to their fate.