Veni, vidi, vici. That’s what Trump would have tweeted en route to a weekend of golf at his courses in Scotland had he not forgotten his high school Latin. Traditional diplomat Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, says “The president treated the NATO allies almost with contempt.” Delete “almost” and Burns has it right. But the tone of Trump’s tweets and comments are best understood as the exasperation of this American president who wants to succeed where his predecessors failed-ending that part of the post-World War II settlement that disadvantages America. And if that means abandoning traditional diplomacy in favour of ill-concealed contempt, so be it.
Start with NATO. Other than the United States, only 3 of the 29 NATO members (Estonia, Greece, the United Kingdom) spend 2 percent of their GDP (or a bit more) on defense. Germany, a rich country, manages to find only 1.22 percent that it does not need for its generous welfare state. Worse still: Chancellor Angela Merkel is willing to raise that figure to only 1.5 percent, and that not until 2024. The 2 percent promised by all members for 2025 will be reached, in Germany’s case, only at a distant, unspecified date yet to be determined. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, drily remarked that 1.5 percent is not 2 percent, while Trump prefers “IMMEDIATELY” to a date that is in fact “never.” But Merkel’s coalition relies on the continued support of the Social Democrats (SDP), who are opposed to the 2 percent target, preferring as they do to use the money to extend the welfare state. Which leaves Trump in a bit of a spot should he ease the pressure on Germany to meet its commitment: how to explain to American taxpayers that it is in their interest to spend money to defend a country that refuses to defend itself. Indeed, one that is strengthening the finances of the country that poses the greatest threat to NATO members.
Trump differs from his predecessors. He is “a phenomenon that foreign countries haven’t seen,” as Henry Kissinger describes him. First, he is unpredictable, a feature on which terrorists rely for their effectiveness. It was safe for Obama’s fellow leaders to rely on their favorite American president not to do anything if they would only listen politely to his elegant prose and then go about ignoring him. But Trump, as he proved by ratcheting up his trade war, means what he says-mostly.
Second, the president believes in what former British Prime Minister Tony Blair called “joined-up policy making and delivery.” Security, trade, energy policy, and, of course, the degree of respect shown him, personally, are all related. In the case of Germany, the charge sheet includes Merkel’s NATO cash shortfall; her dangerous reliance on Russia for a large portion of her country’s energy supply; and her willingness to shovel billions into Vladimir Putin’s sanctions-depleted treasury. In the case of the EU, some members are not only short-changing NATO, burdening American taxpayers, but erecting barriers to American imports, burdening American consumers.
Trump, who insists he persuaded Kim Jong-un to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, also claims that his NATO tactics are working. He claims that members have agreed to increase their previously-set contributions. But Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte says he has no intention of increasing military spending. Neither does Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who has “recommitted” to his existing spend. French president Emmanuel Macron has merely “reaffirmed a credible budget strategy that meets our needs.” Not exactly a bankable promise. Besides, when the bills come due in 2024, most of these leaders will be traveling the world flogging their memoirs.
Trump’s performance on his European trip demonstrates two other aspects of Make America Great Again. First, he knows how to pick his adversaries. Either they can’t do much to harm him should they resist (Canada, Mexico), or he has a grievance easily understood by his political base, and one to which many countries are (quietly) sympathetic. He picked a politically weak opponent (it took Merkel six months to cobble together a coalition after a disastrous election), and a country that has antagonized its partners with its wide-open immigration policies and its anti-growth austerity programs. He knows that almost all countries agree with him that Germany:
is not paying its promised share of mutual defense costs;
is damaging them by running a huge trade surplus that is hurting their economies;
is putting the NATO alliance at risk by becoming a hostage to Russian energy blackmail; and
is returning America’s generous financing of its post-war recovery with tariffs against U.S. cars.
As for China, Trump is engaged in a (trade) war with a country that is financially weak, cannot find enough stuff it buys from America to threaten comparable retaliation, and has antagonized not only American voters with its discriminatory trading practices and IP theft, but other nations as well. Indeed, China is so weak that it is printing money to shore up its debt-ridden economy, and shopping the world for allies in the trade war with America. Unfortunately for China’s president-for-life, Xi Jinping, his claim that China is the defender of free trade falls between implausible and a straight-out falsehood.
The second aspect of America First is Trump’s determination to have the old post-World-War II order yield place to the new one in which he deploys its financial and military power, and his negotiating skills, solely in America’s interests. The old order, as he sees it, was designed to deploy those assets in the interests of war-ravaged countries. That was then, this is now. No more nice guy. No more multilateral institutions, such as the European Union. Membership and Mrs. May’s soft Brexit, which Trump recommended against, means that America would be negotiating with the E.U., which would “probably kill the [trade] deal” with Britain. But he did tell a press conference on the lawn of Chequers, the prime minister’s country house, that he hopes a deal can be struck if Mrs. May negotiates the freedom to do just that on a bilateral basis.
Some call this taking a wrecking ball to the trading system anchored in the World Trade Organization, the security system anchored in NATO, the free movement of people anchored in the E.U., various international humanitarian organizations, and the United Nations. Trump knows something about wrecking balls from his days as a property developer-that they can either result in a pile of rubble or in clearing the way for new and better structures.
His critics say Trump will leave behind a pile of rubble, his defenders that he is replacing the old order with new structures more favorable to America. For now, it is off to Helsinki and Vladimir Putin, where he hopes to do better than Obama’s failed “reset.”