Analysis 06-02-2017



Trump and the Growing European Rift

Trump’s first foreign trip was definitely historic. In the past, a presidential trip to Europe and the Middle East would have found the hardest part of the trip in the Middle East and the European segment one of mutual praise and talk of shared interests and strategic partnerships.

This trip was the other way around. Trump was well received by the Saudis, Israelis, and Palestinians. However, the rifts seen over the last few months in the US/European relationship actually grew larger during meetings in Brussels and Sicily. Rather than mending relations, just a day afterwards, Trump and Germany’s Chancellor Merkel were attacking each other.

It could be argued that US/European relations would have done better if Trump had headed home after visiting Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine.

There appear to be several reasons for the rift. There is definitely some animus between some of the European leaders and the brusque and arrogant American president. That relationship wasn’t helped as Trump frequently took some European leaders to task during the campaign.

However, it wasn’t just the US versus the rest of Europe. British Prime Minister has taken a stand against the EU, especially concerning immigration, that has upset the Europeans of the G7 meeting. In many cases, she was firmly in Trump’s corner – something that didn’t please Germany.

If there was a center of the Trump opposition it was with German Chancellor Merkel. There were reports of several tense exchanges between Trump and Merkel over trade and NATO spending.

Just a day after leaving the G7 meeting Merkel told a group at a Munich beer hall that that Europe can no longer fully rely on the U.S. and United Kingdom.

Merkel implied the days where Germany could rely on the western alliance were “over to a certain extent,” adding “I have experienced this in the last few days.”

“I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands,” Merkel declared. “We have to know that we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans,” she continued.

It’s not just Trump, the US, and Britain that Merkel has problems with. The Turks are also upset with Germany. A flashpoint for Germany continues to grow in Turkey where on Thursday, Turkey’s foreign minister said it is not possible to allow German lawmakers to visit troops stationed at Turkey’s Incirlik air base now, although he said Ankara may reconsider if it sees “positive steps” from Berlin. It was not immediately clear just what Turkey’s “demands” or expectations, monetary or otherwise, were from Merkel for it to change its view.

“We see that Germany supports everything that is against Turkey,” Mevlut Cavusoglu told a news conference in Ankara. “Under these circumstances it is not possible for us to open Incirlik to German lawmakers right now … If they take positive steps in the future we can reconsider.”

It is possible that Merkel may have overplayed her hand. The Financial Times noted, “Merkel has also behaved irresponsibly — making a statement that threatens to widen a dangerous rift in the Atlantic alliance into a permanent breach.”

“Given that Germany has been freeriding on American military spending, it is a little cheeky to blame the US for being an unreliable ally,” it continued. The paper also cautioned Merkel from taking such a confrontational posture with the U.K. particularly in light of coming trade negotiations between the U.K. and the European Union throughout the Brexit process.

“It is hard to see how the UK can be expected to see the same countries as adversaries in the Brexit negotiations and allies in the NATO context. So a really hard Brexit could indeed raise questions about Britain’s commitment to NATO — particularly if the US is also pulling back from the western alliance.”

Finally the Financial Times is concerned with the hostile posture towards the U.S. and U.K. and grouping the countries with Russia. The paper noted that Europe and the G7 is splitting into two groups that mirror what happened in World War Two – the Allies (Britain and the US) and the Axis (Germany, Italy, Japan, and a conquered France).

“It is baffling that a German leader could stand in a beer-tent in Bavaria and announce a separation from Britain and the US while bracketing those two countries with Russia,” Rachman wrote. “The historical resonances should be chilling.”

That doesn’t mean that relations will be cut off. In fact, French President Macron met with Putin for “tough talks.” Macron attacked Russia and Putin during the campaign and Putin’s last scheduled meeting with the French president was cancelled last October over the Syria issue.

The Issues that Separate

Basically, the US/European differences are: climate change issues, trade, defense spending, and immigration.

During the campaign, Trump made it clear that he intended to pull out of the UN Paris climate agreement – a promise he kept just days after returning from Europe. On Thursday, Trump announced that the US was immediately withdrawing from the Paris agreement, which wasn’t ratified by the US Senate, and would begin negotiating for a new environmental deal.

However, this split between the US and Western European nations don’t mean that the US is alone. Eastern European nations are privately desperate to escape.

According to Climate Home,  former Eastern Bloc countries Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary are trying to “gut, block or water down” the Paris accord’s emissions-reductions promises because they interfere with their economic growth and commit them to useless, expensive renewable energy.

Nor are Western European nations fully behind the deal. Europe’s steelmakers – among them, Arcelor-Mittal , Germany’s Thyssenkrupp and Austria’s Voestalpine – have written to EU leaders begging not to be burdened with any of the carbon emissions costs they say would make them uncompetitive against foreign rivals.

The European steelmakers concern about competitiveness is a serious one as Trump attempts to cut back on America’s trade deficit, especially with Germany.

Much of the disagreement was behind the scenes. The G7 managed to release a bland statement that vows to fight protectionism but seemed to take a nod to Mr. Trump’s view that the global trading rule book is stacked against American interest. French President Macron praised Trump’s “capacity to listen” and said “I found someone who is open and willing to deal well with us.”

However, open warfare began after the meeting as Trump tweeted about the large trade deficit (especially in terms of automobiles) with Germany and Merkel retaliated by questioning America’s reliability.

The final issue of major disagreement was NATO contributions. On Thursday in Brussels, with NATO leaders standing alongside him, Trump accused members of the military alliance of owing “massive amounts of money” to the United States and NATO.

This problem isn’t one that upsets just Trump. For the past 8 years, Obama complained about NATO countries not spending 2% of their GDP on defense.

The US spends about 3.6% of GDP on defense. This compares with relatively low-spending Germany on 1.2 per cent of GDP, Italy on 1.1 per cent and the Netherlands on 1.2 per cent. Ironically, Belgium, which hosts the NATO headquarters, spends less than 1.0 per cent of GDP on military.

Only five members of NATO meet the 2 per cent target: US, Britain, Greece, Poland and Estonia.

The Trump comments on meeting NATO obligations went down badly with European leaders, who had hoped Trump would use the opportunity to confirm his commitment to Article 5, the core NATO principle that an attack on one member is viewed as an attack on all.

“When an American president cannot commit clearly to Article 5 at a time when everyone is expecting him to do this then there is the risk that Moscow interprets this as meaning it is no longer valid,” said Jan Techau of the American Academy in Berlin.

On the other hand, European NATO has a GDP ten times that of Russia, so is better able to up its contributions and contribute more to its defense. And, the US has a significant military presence in Eastern NATO – enough to make Moscow question the advisability of any design of “invading” its former client states.

It’s also important to remember that trade and defense issues blur. France, Britain and Germany remain more committed to the Iranian nuclear deal than Trump. Airbus has signed a deal to sell Iran 100 Airbus aircraft. If Trump pulls out of the Iran deal, does Europe abandon the airbus deal or try to take over the Boeing deal to sell Iran 80 aircraft?

Are the Rifts Permanent or Temporary?

It is easy to see the events in Brussels and Sicily as the beginning of the breakup of NATO and the West. However, the past indicates that there is more that joins these nations than separates them.

In the 1960s it seemed that NATO was heading for a permanent breakup as France, under President Charles de Gaulle, withdrew French forces from NATO’s military integrated command. He also ordered all foreign military personnel to leave France within a year. This latter action was particularly badly received in the US, prompting Dean Rusk, the US Secretary of State, to ask de Gaulle whether the removal of American military personnel was to include exhumation of the 50,000 American war dead buried in French cemeteries

However, France rejoined years later and has been an active member of NATO since.

In many ways, De Gaulle and Trump are similar. Both weren’t born politicians and both were nationalists. While Trump wants to make America great again, De Gaulle wanted to make a France defeated in World War Two great again. That policy, naturally, conflicted with the policies of their allies.

Interestingly, de Gaulle also opposed a super European union, which would have put him in opposition to Merkel, who is also a strong personality.

Students of diplomatic history learn that while national leaders come and go, national interests remain. In the end, Western Europe, NATO, and the US still have many common interests that will be there long after Merkel and Trump leave the scene.






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