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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 25 New Delhi June 9, 2018

Drifting Apart: Transatlantic Alliance in Disarray

Sunday 10 June 2018

by Purusottam Bhattacharya

Ever since he came to power sixteen months ago, President Donald Trump has been an enigma—both to his admirers and detractors. In the opinion of many analysts his performance—both on the domestic and foreign policy fronts—has been chaotic, if not anarchic. Things have been made more difficult to discern due to the torrent of tweets that flow from him with contradictory twists and turns day in and day out. Figuring out a consistent agenda out of this maze of what seems to be convoluted thinking has led many analysts to the conclusion that there is no ‘Trump Agenda’ and that he is an ad hoc President responding to events as he thinks fit on a day-to-day basis.

However, it is now apparent that Donald Trump actually has a governing ideology. His Inaugural Address, the strongest and most coherent speech he ever delivered, was clear proof of that. Though it was dismissed as ‘divisive’ by most mainstream commentators—both in America and abroad—and Trump’s own bizarre conduct during the days following the address obfuscated the philosophy propounded with such eloquence, it is now apparent that it deserved closer scrutiny than it received. It is worthwhile to quote the most crucial paragraph from that address:

“For many decades, we have enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidised the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We have defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”

It is in this context that the fissures now discernible in the Transatlantic Alliance have to be assessed and commented upon. One of the very first acts of the new President was to send notice to America’s European allies that they should spend more on their own defence. Trump had startled his domestic and overseas (read European) audience by declaring during the election campaign that NATO was obsolete; however that pronouncement was not given the credibility it deserved at the time and was dismissed as election rhetoric which most leaders across the world forget after they win power. Not so Donald Trump. It may be noted here that the international architecture President Harry Truman and his wise men constructed rested on two assumptions that may be out of date now: the threat of communism (as the West saw it—erroneously as it has been convincingly proved now by the American historians themselves) and the scourge of European nationalism that created the carnage of the 20th century. There was a real fear of a resurgence of German militarism; Germans themselves seemed to fear it. The obvious solution for Truman and his administration seemed to be to offer protection to Germany and the rest of Europe—both from a recrudescence of German militarism and the so-called threat from the Soviet Union. However, the American threat perceptions have now drastically changed, especially after 9/11. The Middle East has now turned into a cauldron of Islamist militancy and their primary focus appears to be America. The Syrian imbroglio has added to the complexity of the situation triggering a tide of immigrants from the Middle East. The US response to the Islamist challenge, epitomised in the wars unleashed in Afghanistan and Iraq, has misfired trapping the American giant in quagmires from which it is finding it hard to extricate itself. Questions are being raised in the US itself, and not by Trump alone—shouldn’t the Europeans take a more active role in finding a solution to the Syrian crisis? Shouldn’t their militaries be protecting their borders? Trump’s US has made it clear that the Europeans cannot expect the kind of protection America offered to them during the past seven decades.

The bad vibes created by Trump by his blunt comments on NATO and Europe in general (he does not make any attempt to conceal his derision about the European Union) badly opened up a faultline that had already been manifesting itself for sometime. The US complaint about Europe not spending its fair share in its own defence had been ventilated by previous American Presidents themselves dating back several decades. The only divergence between Trump and his predecessors is the blunt—sometimes even crude—manners which this twitter-happy President resorts to that can leave a bad taste in the mouth. And the ‘America First’ President did not confine himself to what appears to be abandonment of the NATO alliance alone; there has been a series of actions pronounced from Trump announcing renunciation of the Trans-Pacific trade partnership—so painstakingly worked out by Barack Obama—, US withdrawal from the Paris climate deal in which the Europeans had played a crucial role (a devastating blow to hopes of keeping the rise in global temperature to within 2 degrees Celsius), and Trump’s announcement in early May 2018 of US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)-popularly known as the Iran deal—which had been worked out by Barack Obama in collaboration with the UK, France, Germany, China, Russia and the EU and under which Iran had agreed to limit its capacity to enrich uranium in return for lifting of UN-imposed sanctions; the announcement was followed by re-imposition of US sanctions against Iran on May 8, 2018. This was accompanied by a usual Trump bluster—“Today’s action sends a critical message: The United States no longer makes empty threats. When I make promises, I keep them.”

The European response to the US walkout on both the Paris climate deal and the JCPOA was one of defiance; when Trump announced his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord the Europeans and the rest of the signatories emphatically reiterated their continued commit-ment to the deal though environmentalists are in considerable despair that the 2 degree cap on rise in global temperature will be almost impossible to achieve without the US on board. On the Iran nuclear deal too the Europeans sounded another note of defiance; immediately after the announcement from the White House France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian declared that the Iran nuclear deal was ‘not dead’ despite the US pull out. The other signatories to the JCPOA—the UK, Germany, Russia and China also signalled their continued commitment to the agreement despite a certain degree of uncertainty created by the Trump announcement.

The latest fracas created by Donald Trump also follows very closely his ‘America First’ agenda—but this time on trade. Since the time he declared his candidacy for the US Presidency Trump has been gunning against what he sees as America being the victim of unfair trade practices, especially from China but also Canada, Mexico and the European Union. Trump won the Presidency on the back of the lower middle and working class votes of the so-called rust belt comprising Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio where most of the manufacturing jobs, particularly in coal and steel industries, vanished because of their uncompetitive prices in an increasingly globalised world where apparently the most efficiently produced goods—be they from China, South Korea or India—can undercut the US, and even European products. Trump appears to be determined to pursue a course which he believes will protect American jobs that are arguably going to Mexico and China. The votaries of free trade are up in arms against this approach and assert that the opposite outcome is more likely; but the fact remains that the closed grand old steel mills and coal mines strike an emotional chord among the affected people (who happen to be Trump’s core supporters) thus impinging—at least in the short run—on social harmony, argue the more middle-of-the-road analysts.

In the name of America’s national security Donald Trump announced on May 31, 2018 imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from Canada, Mexico and the European Union. From midnight the same day, trade flows worth $ 23 billion in 2017 faced duties of up to 25 per cent. The riposte from Canada and the European Union was swift: Canada, the largest supplier of steel to the US, proposes to impose tariffs covering C$ 16.6 billion ($ 12.8 billion) on US imports, including whisky, orange juice, steel, aluminium and other products. The EU Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Maelstrom, announced the bloc would take the US to the World Trade Organisation to challenge the legality of the new tariffs, saying negotiations with Washington were not currently possible. EU retaliatory tariffs are in the process of being prepared and would take effect from June 20, 2018 once backed by member-states.

Domestically Trump’s action in imposing tariffs on America’s closest allies have evoked mixed reaction. Those most vocal, including Republican lawmakers and the business lobby, have denounced the President’s action; Trump’s core support groups appear to be satisfied though opinion is divided even among them about the long-term effects these measures might have on the US economy. Trump’s policy of intimidating companies to manufacture products closer home by recruiting American workers might work in the short term in order to protect and repatriate manufacturing jobs; however scaring companies away from global supply chains will leave America poorer in the long run.

The drifting apart of the two Transatlantic allies—the United States and Europe—has been a process long in the making. Since the end of the Cold War the glue that kept the two sides together—the so-called Soviet threat—no longer works. Their global perspectives have continued to diverge, as evident during the Gulf War of 1991 and the Iraq war of 2003, their apparent bonhomie notwithstanding. On many critical issues including trade, global climate change, terrorism, reform of the UN system and other multilateral institutions the US and Europe have found it hard to be on the same page though their differences did not surface in such a glaring manner as during the Trump presidency. The current administration in Washington displays a worldview—if one can decipher it at all—that has put the Europeans in a quandary the like of which they have never experienced in the past seven decades despite many ups and downs in bilateral ties. The hardest part of it from the point of view of the Europeans is that Donald Trump is so unconventional (some would say unpredictable) that it is difficult to fathom which way he would jump; but that is where the catch lies—as I have argued here; Trump is simply following through the agenda he outlined in his Inaugural Address however chaotic and defective a messenger he may be. The world (Europeans included) might just have to learn to live with this syndrome for the rest of the Trump presidency.

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is a Professor (retired) of International Relations and a former Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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