Revenge of the global hegemon
Donald Trump’s attacks on his Nato and European ‘foes’ give us a lesson in global realities, writes Eddie Ford
Dubbed the “disrupter-in-chief” by the Financial Times, Donald Trump certainly lived up to his sobriquet during his recent visit to Europe. Within hours of arriving on the continent, the US president was busy insulting America’s closest allies and threatening to abandon Nato as part of his seeming determination to dismantle - or at least radically reconfigure - the post-war international architecture.
Turning up late to the Nato summit on July 11, Trump - regarded as a rogue president by many - delivered a tirade against Germany for failing to pay enough on defence, and openly attacked Angela Merkel as doing a “horrific thing” by allowing the country to become too dependent on Russian energy supplies. Perhaps rather ironically, given the nature of many of the accusations levelled against him, Trump complained that Germany “is totally controlled by Russia” - it will be getting 60%-70% of its energy from Russia via a new pipeline. On top of that, he went on, Germany is paying “just a little bit over” 1% of GDP on Nato defence contributions, whereas the United States is paying “4.2% of a much larger GDP” - which is “inappropriate” (in fact newly published Nato figures show the US contribution to be 3.6%). Germany’s plan to increase its defence expenditure to 2% of GDP by 2030 was not good enough, when “they could do it tomorrow”.
At the end of the day, of course, his objection to German policy is essentially strategic. In the paranoid Trumpian world view, the US is a victim preyed upon by other powers - thus he resents what he sees as Germany saving on arms and then using that money to give it an ‘unfair’ edge in trade at America’s expense. Arrogantly ignoring all of the current discussions, or items on the agenda, at the meeting - a closed session with no journalists present - Trump declared that his predecessors in the White House had pushed for an increase by Europeans on defence spending, but to no avail. However, he was not going to put up with this any longer.
Shocking his Nato hosts even more, Reuters reports Trump as saying that they “must raise spending” to 4% of GDP by January 2019 or else the United States “would go it alone” - then walked straight out after making this ultimatum, leaving the assembled presidents and prime ministers floundering. Was the US president actually serious about the 4% target or was it another display of Trumpian theatrics - the art of the deal performance - which later he would row back on or even deny ever saying, as is so often the case. Then, of course, there was the inevitable tweet: “What good is Nato if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy? … The US is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on trade. Must pay 2% of GDP immediately, not by 2025.”
For the European ruling classes, they are in near unthinkable territory, with a US president threatening to pull out of a military alliance that both America and Europe have regarded as a cornerstone of their military-diplomatic strategy for almost 70 years. For his part, Emmanuel Macron desperately insisted that this had not been what Trump had meant - please do not desert us, Donald.
In an interview for Fox News on July 17, Trump criticised Merkel yet again - she was a “superstar until she allowed millions of people to come into Germany”, which “really hurt her badly”. Indeed, Europe’s immigration policies as a whole are a “disaster” that is “destroying the culture of Europe” - crime “is up in those areas and you better do something” - act now before it is too late.
Some wistfully, or optimistically, dismiss Trumpism as an aberration that will pass before too long. But they may be deluding themselves, as it seems far more of a strategic shift, with the deliberate aim of turning post-war western relations inside-out. No wonder that a Financial Times editorial is worried about a US president who gives “succour to the far right by denigrating the impact of immigration on Europe” - and is “actively intervening in European politics to promote the agendas of nationalist parties that are his ideological soulmates” (July 14). In the process he is quite “willing to damage mainstream centre-right politicians”. The paper concludes unhappily that Trump “is clearly intent on forming a new kind of transatlantic alliance with insurgent political forces” and that is “recklessly undermining stability in Europe and damaging America’s long-term interests”.
The day after the Nato summit, Trump landed in Britain as part of his whirlwind disrupter tour - only to be met with protests in central London of up to a quarter of a million people, with a giant blimp of Trump as a baby floating overhead.
In what could only have been a humiliation for Theresa May, whilst she was hosting a dinner for the US president at Winston Churchill’s ancestral home, news broke of his interview for TheSun, in which he attacked May’s whole approach to Brexit. Bringing joy to the ears of the hard Brexiteers, Trump said that May’s Chequers plan for a “common rulebook” for food and goods with the European Union was “a much different deal than the people voted on” (July 13). More to the point, when it came to any possible trade agreement with the US, such a plan would “probably kill the deal”. In all fairness, as communists are the first to admit, what Trump and Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and David Davis say about the Chequers plan is essentially correct - if Britain is still bound by EU rules and regulations, then striking a meaningful trade deal with the US or any other non-EU country is going to be extremely difficult. By any objective criteria, May’s plan is unworkable.
In the same incendiary interview, Trump said Boris Johnson would make a “great” prime minister, as “he’s got what it takes” - whatever that is. And he resumed his vendetta against the mayor of London, saying Sadiq Khan had done a “terrible job” when it came to last year’s terrorist attacks in the capital and “spiralling” crime in general. We also found out that the US president had offered Theresa May advice on how to do a Brexit deal, but “she didn’t listen to me” and “wanted to go a different route”. We later discovered from May herself that the president’s brilliant advice was not to negotiate with EU leaders, but sue them instead - though on what legal basis is hard to imagine.
True to form, by the next day Trump denied that he said any such thing about May and her Chequers plan - accusing TheSun of peddling “fake news”, as it had not included “all the nice things” he had said about the prime minister - despite the fact that you can listen to an audio recording of the entire interview on the paper’s website. However, to save you the effort, let me confirm that he did not say anything “nice” about Theresa May. For once the paper was not peddling false “fake news” or lies, its usual stock in trade.
At an excruciating press conference outside Chequers on the same day, with Trump now clutching May’s hand, the president struck a more emollient tone - albeit very forced. Whatever course she took on Britain’s future relationship with the EU “is OK with me”. Yes, cutting a trade deal might be “tricky”, but it was “an incredible opportunity” for both countries. For her part, May insisted there would be “no limit” to doing a trade deal with the US or other non-EU countries. What planet is she living on? Though it does have to be said that Trump soured the occasion: May standing beside him stony-faced, when he reiterated his opinion that Johnson would make a good prime minister, because “he’s been very nice to me …. saying very good things about me as president”. In Trump-world, that is the only quality that really matters - saying the things he wants to hear.
In another fairly extraordinary intervention just hours before his now notorious press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16, Trump bluntly stated that his “biggest foe globally right now” was the EU - calling the body “very difficult” before ticking off other more traditional rivals like Russia and China. The president claimed that he had “respect” for the EU leaders, but “in a trade sense they’ve really taken advantage of us”. As our readers will know, Trump really put the cat amongst the pigeons in Helsinki, when he seemingly accepted the Russian leader’s denial of election meddling in US politics. Putin had told him “it’s not Russia”, Trump relayed to reporters, and “I don’t see any reason why it would be. I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that president Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” These remarks were denounced as “treasonous” by the former CIA director John Brennan, to which Trump replied that Brennan was “a very bad guy”.
Nonetheless, it tells you something when you have a US president who seems to be at war with his own intelligence agencies, large elements of his own party, a good chunk of the US establishment and his European allies. It also gives us a lesson in global realities. The US might be in relative decline, but it is still the global hegemon - able to impose its will, to one degree or another, on almost any part of the world. We had a recent reminder of this with the launch of Trump’s trade war with China, which at first glance looks crazy and self-destructive. But, if anybody wins, it will be the US, not China.
When the US in 2011 under Barack Obama lost its prized triple-A credit rating, all that happened was that money poured into the United States - meaning that America got its pristine status back pretty damn quickly. That might sound counterintuitive or even irrational, but, when the world economy seems to be in trouble, the safest refuge for your money is the global hegemon - the supercop with the dollar that has a stable political system and will not disappear any time soon. In all likelihood, this will be the outcome of the trade war - money will flow into the US, and China will be revealed to be a paper tiger.