This victory need not trouble Nato – Trump will find he needs friends in Europe
Robert Hunter, The Guardian, November 10, 2016
Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election has produced worldwide bewilderment. Some of this may prove justified, depending on how Trump performs. But in part it is a reaction to the way we Americans conduct our election campaigns – the oceans of money, the media’s overweening role and the tested and proved tactics of “going negative”.
Nevertheless, despite the anger, accusations and mutual fearmongering, when the result was declared both Trump and Hillary Clinton showed once again that in America the peaceful transfer of power is sacred. Friends and allies abroad, take comfort.
For more than 47% of American voters, there is nothing to be bewildered about. Their candidate won, with the margin of victory provided by Trump breaching the Clinton camp’s firewall in the midwest “rust belt”. Supposed experts underplayed or ignored the rising unhappiness caused by the squeeze on the American middle class and the failure of political institutions and leaders to address its legitimate concerns. Bernie Sanders and Trump both understood this – and it is the principal fact to take from this campaign season.
But for European friends and allies, what does a Trump presidency mean in practice? The question of trade can be disposed of easily. However much value there can be for countries on both sides of the Atlantic, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is not going to see much progress any time soon.
Even if Trump the businessman comes to see its value, Trump the self-declared champion of the US middle class will be a tough bargainer, and TTIP will not be high on his agenda. That place is reserved for demands, underscored by the election results, to attend first to America’s domestic economic problems – notably infrastructure and middle-class jobs, plus “a project of national growth and renewal”.
Nor is this ordering of priorities entirely bad for Europe. An America slipping further behind in holding its own economically with China, and with the huge domestic inequalities that threaten political and social peace, would not be a sufficiently useful partner for friends across the Atlantic.
But what of Nato? Prominent among European concerns is the fear that Trump will abandon the alliance or at least substantially downgrade its importance to America. Interests of national security, which historically are the principal determinant of US actions in foreign policy, argue otherwise.
It is not Pollyanna-ish to suggest that an alliance that has survived, prospered and proved itself relevant in all weathers will not be abandoned by this or any other president. When he enters the Oval office on 20 January, Trump will find that the US still has vital interests in remaining deeply engaged abroad, that threats and challenges are no different then than they were on Obama’s watch, and that his pledge to “make America great again” must include an international, indeed a global, commitment. Better to face that world with allies than alone.
Further, Trump wants more spending on the US military; and, as an astute bargainer, he will know that his hopes for transforming relations with Russia must include America keeping its powder dry, its guard up and its western alliance in good fettle.
Trump says he will do what is necessary to defeat terrorism, especially Isis, though unlike Clinton he will not use US military power against Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. In line with most Europeans’ thinking, he wants no new wars in the region, including with Iran. At the same time, however, the US will take in no Middle East refugees, a resistance to helping Europe that is shared by Obama and Clinton.
Trump did say he wants America’s European allies to “pay their bills”, which means meeting Nato’s goal of spending 2% of GDP on defence (only five of 28 allies now do so). This is also the Obama administration’s policy. But careful reading of what Trump said, as opposed to the political meal the Clinton campaign made of his imprecise phrasing, provides no evidence he would abandon the Baltic states if they faced Russian aggression. And his asking Europeans to stand more on their own militarily is also an EU objective.
But would Trump stand up to an assertive Russia and president Vladimir Putin? The latter welcomed the US election outcome. So what? More important, in his victory statement, the US president-elect said: “I want to tell the world community that while we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone, with everyone. All people and all other nations. We will seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict … We will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us.” Do Europeans prefer that a US president says the opposite – providing he means what he said and learns the complexities, demands, frustrations and limitations of putting it into practice?
What Trump said on election night is far better than simple acceptance of the current drift by both Moscow and Washington into a new, rigid confrontation, which Clinton’s key advisors, by contrast, see as almost unavoidable. Maybe Trump’s approach will work in Moscow, offering a means, if Putin will comply, to get back on the road to President George HW Bush’s goal of a “Europe whole and free and at peace”. Perhaps it won’t. But it is worth a try; and it is worth our European friends, at least for now, trying to “keep calm and carry on”.