17 July 2018

Who goes there? Foe or ...?

For a politician, the President of the United States has a limited vocabulary which he uses in often slapdash fashion, yet Donald Trump showed unusual care in his choice of words when talking to a CBS interviewer last week. Many observers were alarmed by his use of the word "foe" to describe the European Union, even as he used the same word for Russia and China. While many took offense at his calling the EU a foe, it's clear from the word choice that he doesn't see the Europeans as an "enemy." At the same time, "foe" sounds more serious than "competitor" or "rival," which may reflect how much more seriously Trump takes global commerce than many do in the bipartisan political establishment. Unlike the libertarian consensus on trade, Trump clearly sees it as a zero-sum game that the U.S. can't afford to lose. He seems reluctant to accept the trade-offs globalism imposes or to concede the loss of any American job, even as critics warn that his protectionist policies may cost more jobs than they can possibly preserve.

To Trump, it seems, trade rivalry is more real and meaningful than the ideological affinities that, to some, should bind us unbreakably to the democracies of western Europe. At the same time, let's not overstate the implications of his labeling anyone a "foe." As noted already, he also identified China and Russia as foes, and in all cases foe-dom seems for him to be a matter of circumstances rather than an inherent state of being. Most importantly, when speaking of foes Trump added: "But that doesn't mean they're bad. It doesn't mean anything [!?!]. It means they are competitive. They want to do well and we want to do well."

The President has no vision of ultimate harmony among nations. His National Security Strategy recognizes rivalry as an inevitable fact of international life. That may seem fatalistic, cynical or self-fulfilling to many people, but it also seems to mean that Trump is less likely to attribute rivalry to malevolence on the part of his foreign counterparts. That would explain why he perceives and presumably approaches Vladimir Putin and other actual or alleged authoritarians differently from they way liberals or neocons would. He is almost certainly not as naive on that subject as many critics suspect, though it's possible that he underestimates how far Putin may go to advance his country's interests. It should suffice to say that as far as Trump is concerned, no nation's system of government or the governmental style of its ruler makes it automatically an existential enemy or a permanent friend of the U.S. His stance alarms people who see a solidarity of democracies as essential in the face of the apparently eternal authoritarian challenge, and see that solidarity undermined by Trump's protectionism. It may be that just as statesmen of the past questioned whether another nation's sovereignty was worth the lives of his own soldiers, Trump may question whether an alliance of democracies is worth the jobs of his own voters. The wisdom of that view probably will be longer in the proving than many have jumped to conclude.

12 July 2018

Captive to America?

According to the Trump foreign policy, alliances should materially benefit the United States. That became most apparent when the President chided Germany this week for receiving energy from a Russian pipeline. That deal, he claimed, made Germany a "captive" of Russia, presumably because German dependence on the pipeline gives Vladimir Putin leverage in geopolitical disputes. It was clear from the context of his remarks, however, that Trump resented the Germans not making themselves more economically dependent on the U.S. From an early point in his presidency, Trump has made it clear that he wants European nations to buy more American energy, making himself an open economic rival to Russia by making his pitch to Eastern European countries. When dealing with NATO, he makes it more clear that the member states should show their gratitude to the U.S. not only buy contributing more to the common defense but by buying American more often. As usual, Trump's comments on NATO have alarmed established observers. They take alarm because they see NATO  idealistically as something motivated by disinterested benevolence or by a principled defense of European national sovereignty against the perpetual threat of Russia. They see NATO as a matter of duty for the "leader of the free world" to which questions of compensation, much less profit, should be immaterial. Trump and his supporters take a more contingent view, and the President's demand that our allies come across with more money will most likely play well with Americans in general so long as it's understood that it will free up American resources for American needs. Few are likely to see his approach as the miserly shortsightedness described by many pundits and politicians. I see no reason not to expect Europe to contribute more to its own defense, so long as Europeans feel the need for an extensive defense establishment. But I can't help seeing the President's whining about that pipeline as somewhat venal and slightly childish in its intention to deflect persistent gossip about his own dependence on Russia. The alliance may not be the unconditional obligation some ideologues and geostrategists think it to be, but it isn't a protection racket either, and it's not unreasonable for people to worry when a statesman seems so openly to calculate the value of an alliance as a matter of profit and loss.