Trump’s trip and an American-European split

By leaving the global system to its own devices, Trump will not do himself, or the United States, any favours. 

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Matthew Bugeja
2 June 2017, 8:43am
While Trump thrives in displays of showmanship such as in Saudi Arabia and Rome, he has yet to come to terms with the detail-heavy, foreign policy-oriented parts of his job
While Trump thrives in displays of showmanship such as in Saudi Arabia and Rome, he has yet to come to terms with the detail-heavy, foreign policy-oriented parts of his job
This article was written prior to the announcement yesterday of the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement

When President Donald Trump embarked upon his first foreign trip, it was a good opportunity for the new US President to build his own relationships with traditional US allies in the Middle East and Europe. Not to mention Trump’s participation in an important annual meeting with the other heads of state of the G7 advanced economies, the world’s elite geopolitical club. Sandwiched between these meetings was a quick stop at the Vatican with Pope Francis.

If his objective was to differentiate his foreign policy approach from that of former President Barack Obama - then his trip abroad would be considered a resounding success. Otherwise, the trip highlighted that President Trump still cares little, and understands even less about the American-led, rules-based global system which has allowed it to retain its position to date as the world’s sole superpower.

His trip began well enough – his first visit was to Saudi Arabia where he received a warm welcome. Trump signed an arms deal worth some $110 billion in Riyadh. It was a clever move which allows him to retain the nuclear deal with Iran (for now), whilst bolstering Iran’s greatest foe in the Middle East. His next trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories were uneventful, President’s Trump’s visit to the Vatican was initially characterised by a rather cool reception by the Pope, but it appears the two settled into a more cordial exchange.

Once he landed in Brussels for meetings with EU & NATO leaders, some of his weaknesses came to the fore – while Trump thrives in displays of showmanship such as in Saudi Arabia and Rome, he has yet to come to terms with the detail-heavy, foreign policy-oriented parts of his job.

America’s European partners depend less, and expect more from their American allies than the Saudis and Israelis do. Where the Saudis and Israelis would content themselves with a public display of support and military aid, the EU, NATO and the G7 expect leadership, or at least adherence to common principles on issues such as free trade, climate change, and relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia amongst other hot button issues. America’s EU, NATO and G7 allies partners that Mr. Trump might upset the apple cart at what are normally highly-choreographed occasions. Those fears were not without cause. Donald Trump the Presidential candidate promised to withdraw America from climate treaties, rewrite the rules on globalisation and trade, and to seek a closer relationship with Vladimir Putin – all things which were viewed with some trepidation from several European capitals.

Despite Mr. Trump’s often strong-armed approach to diplomacy, it is not to say that he is always wrong. His “America First” policy was in full display in his visits to both Brussels and Taormina, Sicily where the G7 meeting was held. In Belgium, Trump chastised the 23 NATO members who were not spending 2% of their GDP towards their own defence, which is fair criticism, even if his public tongue lashing of his NATO allies will probably make his European counterparts more defensive, and less open to compromise.

On the point of NATO spending, whilst the reasons behind Trump’s chiding may be justified, his lack of depth on foreign policy nuance is a serious impediment to him attaining some of his objectives. As President, Trump or his advisors would know that whilst Germany may be able to afford the 2% of GDP guideline from a financial perspective, they are also more reluctant to have a large military given the historical sensitivities involved. Not everything boils down to money, and this is a lesson that Mr. Trump has so far refused to see past.

After the G7 meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hinted at a more assertive approach by the EU when she said that Europe can no longer completely depend on others, particularly after the US signalled that they would not sign a communique on the importance of addressing climate change. Merkel said that Europeans truly must take their fate into their own hands. In short, she is alluding to a closer union within the EU, which was discussed shortly after the Brexit vote, but put on the backburner during the national elections threatened by populists in Austria, the Netherlands and France.

With the far-right parties in Germany being too weak to mount a serious challenge to Merkel, she can confidently talk about a more tightly-knit EU with little fear of political repercussions (her only real adversary, Martin Schulz, also favours enhancing European integration). But with the UK, which has been the EU’s traditional link with the US, leaving – one might remark that this might be the beginning of a more divergent Western-led global order, with the EU on the one hand and the US/UK on the other. Cooperation on many issues would still be likely – but no longer fully guaranteed. Areas which would be worst hit would be international trade, the backbone of the globalised world, and climate change, which is expected to show its more severe effects by the end of this century.

The world faces many threats in the 21st century, and a lack of cooperation amongst Western powers would not be beneficial for global stability. The United States has traditionally carried the mantle of global leadership since 1991. In his first trip abroad, Donald Trump has shown little interest in pursuing much beyond his own immediate, short-sighted goals. The President needs to realise that whilst he harbours disdain for the costs in the US propping up the global system of capitalism and democracy, it is also the US and its economy at large which benefits the most. He is right to make some demands, but needs to provide the moral and global leadership which his allies ask for in return. Since the beginning of the 20th century, American foreign policy has always arguably been placing America first by seeking the mantle of leadership and guiding the global system to its advantage – by leaving the global system to its own devices, Trump will not do himself, or the United States, any favours. 

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Matthew Bugeja is consultant at Bugeja Geopolitical Consulting - www.bugejaconsulting.com