European powers nervous ahead of Trump tour
Every time Donald Trump climbs the steps into Air Force One to go abroad, a potent rewriting of the international rulebook has ensued. He rocked the recent G-7 summit in Canada, he smashed through decades of US policy on the Korean Peninsula, and one can count on him doing much the same during his July tour of Europe.
Except for the US, Trump largely hates anything with an acronym — the UN, NATO, the EU, G-7, NAFTA. This trip gives him the chance to savage a whole host of multi-letter names with no fear as to what this means for international cooperation.
Trump’s Europe trip may provide the answers to many key questions that have hovered around him since his election: How he intends to deal with NATO; the direction of relations with the UK; the future of US-EU trade; the fate of Iran; as well as his relationship with Russia and President Vladimir Putin. A lot is riding on this exercise in summitry. It will be fascinating to see who plays Trump best and who riles him.
Putin will hope he is in the former category as he gets to see Trump last in Helsinki. He will be looking to see a US pullback from Europe and an agreement on Russia’s position in Syria. Trump may seek to find a way to get Iran out, and may use the threat of closer ties to Russia to get his way on NATO defense spending and tariffs. But he also looks hyper-keen to do some form of a deal, including trying to get Russia back into the G-7.
Trump, contrary to the findings of US intelligence agencies, still gives credence to the notion that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election, tweeting that: “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with meddling in our election.” Added to that, Trump also left the door open to recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Moreover, if Trump can praise North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, surely he should have even warmer words for Putin. European powers must be nervous.
Trump has already kick-started his attacks — his tried and trusted method of getting his adversaries on the back foot. He tore into the EU: “We love the countries of the European Union. But the European Union, of course, was set up to take advantage of the United States.” That this is factually inaccurate, given that the European community was set up to ensure peace in Western Europe after the horrors of two world wars, is beside the point. Trump has reportedly also urged President Emmanuel Macron to let France join Britain in leaving the EU. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is the object of his most pointed attacks, especially on immigration. “Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people who have so strongly and violently changed their culture,” he tweeted.
Attacking NATO is nothing new for Trump. “It will be an interesting summit. NATO is as bad as NAFTA. It’s much too costly for the US,” he has said. Trump has also written to eight NATO members as good as commanding them to pay more into the organization’s budget. Germany has agreed some defense spending increases, but only to 1.5 percent of GDP by 2024, not the 2 percent NATO spending obligation. However, this still represents an 80 percent increase on current figures.
If Trump can further divide a fractured EU, he will do so. Given the major rifts on immigration, this should be a cakewalk for someone so deft at polarizing opinion.
Trump’s greatest strength is that he will take credit with his voter base whatever the outcomes. If other NATO powers do not commit to paying their fair share, he will simply pile on the pressure. He will act tough, and if he succeeds and Germany, for example, does increase its budget, Trump will just scoop up the credit. On trade, either the EU buckles in the face of his demands or he will plunge straight into the trade war he has promised.
If Trump can further divide a fractured EU, he will do so. Given the major rifts on immigration, this should be a cakewalk for someone so deft at polarizing opinion. On Russia, Trump will either act tough with Putin or announce some new understandings on Syria, Iran, the G-7 and Eastern Europe. He has set up a winning position whatever the outcome.
What can the European powers do? Every leader knows that Trump’s popularity on the continent is at rock-bottom levels, so they cannot afford to be seen too accommodating to him. The British government has largely arranged events for Trump outside of London to avoid the hordes of expected protesters. Britain wants a free trade agreement with Trump after Brexit so is likely to make conciliatory noises, even though Prime Minister Theresa May will be urging Trump not to cosy up too close to Putin. Germany can stand up to Trump, but Merkel is nervous about Russian aggression so does not want to see a weakening of NATO.
The one guaranteed element is that it will not be dull. Trump has never failed to dominate the news headlines thanks to his seemingly unending ability to do things differently, whether it is with handshakes, salutes or barging past people.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech