DONALD TRUMP’S first trip abroad as President saw him launch radical changes in US foreign policy from those pursued by his predecessor. If he can see them through, they will generate major upheavals in world politics. At the 28th NATO Summit in Brussels on 2425 April, Trump berated his assembled allies for ripping off America’s taxpayers and “owing” billions in defence spending.
“I have been very, very direct with [NATO] Secretary Stoltenberg and members of the alliance in saying that NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations. But 23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying, and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defence. This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States, and many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years, and not paying in those past years.”
In 2011, European Union member states spent $281 billion on defence alone, almost twice the EU’s total annual budget. Of course, this was dwarfed by the USA, which spent over $711 billion on its military. Similarly, EU states can deploy barely 100,000 soldiers for operations beyond their own borders; whereas the USA can field 400,000. Its “strategic assets” (long-range transport planes and ships, air tankers and precision-guided munitions) also far outnumber the Europeans’.
The reason for this imbalance is, of course, obvious: the USA is the self-appointed world policeman, intervening regularly all around the globe and determined to maintain strategic superiority over its nearest superpower rivals who, in any case, presently have only a regional outreach. In the century of Britain’s world dominance it, too, maintained the same sort of superiority, then measured in terms of naval strength. For all Trump’s bluster about the Europeans “owing” the US taxpayer, this is not a sign of the Americans’ strength but of their fear of decline.
Nevertheless, European heads of state acknowledged their sins and reaffirmed their previous pledges to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence; their average spending is presently about 1.4 per cent.
When it comes to foreign affairs and, in particular to wars, when the USA says “Jump!”, Britain asks “How high?”. While running down its National Heath Service, Britain already spends over the target 2 per cent on “defence”, and Theresa May and the Tories promise to spend even more. Germany, however, is on Trump’s naughty stool as far as arms spending is concerned. For Germany to reach the 2 per cent target would mean an increase from €37 billion to €69 billion. For Europe’s NATO members, taken as a whole, it would mean an increase of €200 billion up to more than €300 billion.
For a continent where many countries are still implementing austerity and where leading EU states like France and Germany spend twice as much as the USA on welfare as a percentage of GDP, persuading their electorates to endorse a huge rearmament programme will be no easy matter.
Without Britain to fight his corner, Trump may find it difficult to gain German and French support for any military adventures against Iran that he might be planning with the Saudis and the Israelis. Only days after Trump’s departure, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel made what is widely being seen as a veritable declaration of independence, in a speech to the Christian Social Union (CSU), her own party’s Bavarian sister-party:
“The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over. I have experienced this in the last few days. And that is why I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands, of course in friendship with the United States of America, in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbours wherever that is possible also with other countries, even with Russia.”
Indeed, at their Bratislava summit last September, the first from which Britain was excluded, EU leaders had already discussed plans for the foundation of a European military force with “strategic autonomy” and a new “EU Global Strategy”. This project, long favoured by Germany and France and supported by Italy and Poland, the other countries on the mainland with sizeable armies, had been vetoed repeatedly by Britain.
The response of the UK Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, that “this will not happen” shows that he is living in the past. Britain will not be consulted. Indeed, after the German elections in the autumn, when Brexit negotiations really get going, Britain will soon find itself in the painful posture of a supplicant. Britain will no longer be vetoing decisions, let alone dictating terms, for Europe.
Despite diplomatic promises to remain “Atlanticist”, a European Defence Force will ultimately call into question the existence of the whole NATO protection racket, a process Trump himself began when he called NATO “obsolete”. Whilst the break up of NATO is not an immediate option, if Trump continues with his unilateral actions, neither consulting his allies nor accommodating their own imperialist interests, then the evolution of mainland Europe towards an independent imperialist bloc is likely to proceed apace. The main beneficiary of these developments is likely to be Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
As for Britain, being a US poodle will be even more problematic for Theresa May than it was for Tony Blair. If she can maintain a working majority following her deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, she will find herself forced to go hand in hand with Trump on his various adventures, as well as finding that beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to trade “deals”. In any case, despite Trump’s fulsome praise for it, Brexit will inevitably mean that the UK can no longer act as the USA’s Trojan Horse in Europe, and this will radically devalue Theresa May’s stock in Washington and on Wall Street.
Trump’s hostility to Germany extends beyond the question of arms spending. At the 43rd G7 summit in Taormina in Italy on 26-27 May, he was equally frank about German trade policy, which he characterised as “bad, very bad”.
“Look at the millions of cars they’re selling in the US. Terrible. We will stop this”, he raged. In January, he had already threatened Germany with a 35 percent import tax on its cars. “If you go down Fifth Avenue everyone has a Mercedes Benz in front of his house”, he told Bild newspaper. “How many Chevrolets do you see in Germany? Not very many, maybe none at all … it’s a one-way street.”
“We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change”, Trump tweeted during the summit.
BMW’s Chief Executive, Harald Krueger, struck back, pointing out that the company’s biggest plant worldwide is in Spartanburg, South Carolina. In 2016, the company sold a total of 313,174 vehicles in the USA. Of that number, 103,943, 32 per cent, were built in the USA, while the remainder of Spartanburg’s production, some 70 per cent, were exported to markets around the world. The value of BMW exports from the USA that year was more than $10.5 billion, making it the highest value exporter of vehicles from the USA, according to the US Department of Commerce.
Clearly there is more than an element of sheer bluster in Trump’s threats of a tariff war. Congress, not to say the World Trade Organisation, might have something to say about that. His Presidency is already under siege at home, not just from popular resistance to his reactionary policies but also from sections of his own Republican party, as well as Democrats on Capitol Hill, and from within the security services and the battery of semi-official foreign policy institutes in Washington.
If Trump is able to swing the US ruling class and its state behind such a change in strategy, then we have indeed just witnessed an important turning point. It would be comparable to the turning point that occurred between 1946 and 1948, with Merkel’s speech to the CSU the equivalent of Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri.
But this is a very big if.
Trump and his strange team of family and business cronies want the USA to break free from multilateral trade deals and commitments, and also from permanent and unchangeable military alliances. A ferocious battle is going on within the US establishment over whether to maintain the USA’s entire post-1948 strategy of relating to a united European economy, tied to the USA by NATO, or to replace this with a global, freebooting USA striking advantageous deals with its own (and Europe’s) rivals, and attacking those too weak to resist it.
The former strategy was that of the Clintons and the Bushes, and of their neoconservative and neoliberal advisers. True, they wanted to refresh this perspective with another Cold War for which a newly assertive Russia under Putin was proving a suitable adversary. So far, however, Trump has met with a phalanx of opposition to opening talks with Russia, although this was one of his election promises and something for which he could claim a popular mandate if he wished.
Thus, Trump’s first foray into global politics has not yet resulted in the exposition of a new US strategic doctrine, or of a definite alternative to neoliberal globalisation. It has however revealed his appetite for breaking with existing economic and military doctrines, and with multilateral alliances and trade agreements. What is not clear is whether the US ruling class will fall in behind this fundamental change in strategy. However, it does mark an intensification of the conflicts between the major imperialist blocs and a swapping of enemies for allies and vice versa.
What the membership and shape of future alliances might be cannot yet be predicted; but that their rivalries, and the attendant breakup of existing economic blocs will lead to wars with highly dangerous consequences can be. Without excusing or supporting any of the imperialist camps, or their regional proxies, socialists in all countries need to expose their own ruling classes’ plans and do all they can to defeat them.