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Trump’s political debut in Europe: source of instability is US, not Russia

The debut of the new U.S. administration in Europe is over. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attended the G20 foreign ministers summit in Bonn. Also last week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence made a speech at a security conference in Munich and paid a visit to the EU headquarters in Brussels. In the meantime, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis met with NATO defense ministers in Brussels. European mass media are unanimous about the results of these visits: one cannot fully rely on Donald Trump and cannot fully trust what his men said in Munich, Bonn and Brussels. Europe is suspicious of Trump. Anti-Trump European mass media are trying to picture him as a light-minded person. As a result, at the Munich conference 2017, the major source of global instability was not Russia – as was usually the case before – but the United States.

During his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Tillerson urged Russia to retreat in the east of Ukraine. Mattis told his NATO counterparts that the United States regarded NATO as “a fundamental bedrock” for the Transatlantic community. But during his campaign, Trump called NATO “obsolete” and insufficiently geared towards combating international terrorism. In Brussels, Mattis did not criticize NATO but repeated what Trump said during his campaign: the United States will protect NATO allies but will cut its financing if Europe fails to increase its defense budget.

Pence said that the United States was not going to retract its obligations to NATO. He spoke a lot about the United States’ foreign policy but said nothing new as it was already known that the Americans were no longer going to support the Iranian deal and were expecting the Russians to comply with the Minsk agreements. But none of the U.S. guests specified whether the United States was going to torpedo the Iranian deal and to resume the sanctions and how it will act with respect to Russia in Ukraine. This uncertainly has put the Europeans on the alert – especially now that the European Union is falling apart. The Europeans are no longer united and no longer trust each other. So, why should they trust Trump?

Trump is quite consistent in doing what he has promised. He promised to force the NATO allies to enlarge their defense costs and his men just reiterated this in Europe. But, de facto, he is forcing the Europeans to do what his hated predecessor Barack Obama imposed on them in Wales in Sept 2014. Just like Obama, he wants the NATO allies to show a fair attitude towards security. If he succeeds in this, he will be the better president than Obama. Without the United States, there is no NATO. The Americans enjoy hegemony in the west and are trying to use it to gain even bigger control over their western partners. Their call for higher defense costs in Europe is just one more test for them to see if the Europeans will obey this time or will continue neglecting them.

In their turn, the Europeans say that if the Americans cease to be a reliable partner, they will have to care for their security on their own. Nuclear deterrence is the key problem. Now that the UK has broken away from the EU, it will be independent in this sphere and will comply only with NATO’s policies. In fact, it is turning into a small copy of the United States. The only nuclear nation in the EU is now France but the Frenchmen do not seem to be going to act on behalf of whole Europe here. As a result, in security the EU remains strongly dependent on the United States and NATO. Trump’s first steps have shown that he is not going to break the alliances the Americans established in Europe. It seems that the Americans are going to discipline their too relaxed European partners and that they in Washington don’t care for what they in Brussels think about their military decisions.

In Munich and Brussels, they urged their NATO partners to increase their military budgets to 2% of their GDPs. But it was not clear if that urge was an ultimatum or not and how Trump would react if the Europeans ignore it.

On Feb 15, Mattis urged the allies to consider specific steps towards increasing their military costs. He did not insist on an increase for the next fiscal year but he made it clear that the Americans might review their obligations to the Europeans if they do nothing towards this end. What exactly the Americans will do is not clear.

Only four European nations spend two or more percent of their GDPs on defense: the EK, Greece, Poland and Estonia. Now that the British have broken away from the EU and are facing financial problems, it will be hard for them to spend more on their army but they may well be forced to do it.

Last week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that in 2016, NATO’s European members enlarged their military costs by 3.8% or $10bn. This is not much. And the key reason is the EU’s common economic policy. The author of this policy is Germany and its supervisors are Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schauble. For some EU members, it is a real problem to enlarge their military budgets as they have big national debts. The only solution for them is either to cut some items or to boost their deficits.

Obviously, this call is addressed to Germany. After WWII, the Americans were the key guarantors of Western Germany’s security and cared for it even more than the Germans did, at least, because the latter had no sovereignty. Today, the Germans are Europe’s strongest nation, spending 1.2% of their GDP on defense. This year, they are going to spend on their army as much as 37bn EUR. But if they accept the Americans’ 2% quota, they will have to spend as much as 62.5bn EUR. At the peak of the cold war, they spent on defense almost 01/3 of their budget. Today, they spent 13% of the budget. But the Americans insist on a 70% increase. The German Social Democrats call this demand “opportunistic” and will hardly comply with it if they come into power.

In Munich, the Europeans shared Trump’s concerns and agreed to meet their obligations. But on Feb 17, 2017, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said that the Europeans must not yield to the Americans’ calls for higher military costs. Spiegel reacted by an article saying, “The idea of Europe being a junior partner could finally be consigned to the dustbin of history and lead Europe to begin defining its own interests. That includes a reasonable relationship with Russia that isn't based exclusively on deterrence. That also includes making clear to Turkey that there are limits to solidarity if Ankara plays with fire in Syria or if the conflict with the Kurds further escalates. That could also include making some trade-policy concessions during the Brexit negotiations in exchange for British participation in a joint European defense partnership. Ultimately, a Europe that is serious about its own security will also have to consider nuclear deterrence.” Süddeutsche Zeitung added that Europe musty protect its values from Trump. So, we see that the Europeans have found covers for their reluctance to pay their dues: one of them is their wish to be independent and the other is the need to protect their values from Trump.

If the Europeans agreed to increase their military budgets, there are two ways for them Europeans to use them – either to enlarge their armies or to reequip them. In 2016, the Germans increased their military costs by 13% and spent the money mostly on designing and testing new weapons, with focus on control and communications systems. So, when the Americans insist on higher military costs, they seek not so much to equally distribute them among EU members as to get bigger profits for their own military equipment producers.

They may also seek to reduce Germany’s dominance in Europe. One of the key reasons why Trump has cancelled the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) project is that the Germans undervalue EURO and are using their own currency for “exploiting” the other EU members. The IMF has confirmed that EURO is 15-20% cheaper than it is supposed to be. As a result, in 2016, the U.S. Department of the Treasury blamed Germany for unfair currency practices even though Germany has no currency of its own.

Over the last 25 years, Germany has proved to be the key beneficiary of Russia’s losses in the cold war. It gained quite a “fertile” region and has been cutting its labor costs by moving its productions to Central Europe. As a result, its trade balance is as high as never before, with the United States being its key importer.

Here Trump continues Obama’s policy. Under Obama, the Americans shattered the Germans’ major economic pillars, Deutsche Bank and VW. Obama hoped to throw the Germans into the arms of TTIP. Trump is acting differently: he will try to enlarge the share of U.S. corporations on the global market but by means of bi- or multi-lateral pro-American deals.

Germany’s bottleneck is the inequality of the EU members. The last dispute with the Poles in Munich has brought this problem to the surface. The Germans told the Poles that the 50bn EUR subsidy was a big benefit for them (so, why are you displeased?). The Poles replied that they used the money for modernizing their infrastructures but the contractors were German companies, who were earning the money back.

Over the last years, the Germans’ strategy in the EU has been to become even more important in Europe without spending more on it. This policy is annoying the other EU members. So, by calling for a bigger defense budget in Europe, Trump might have tried to approach Germany’s money box from the other side.

The Germans are trying to avoid any conflicts with the Americans and are not making any official statements against Trump. Today, the Europeans are facing too many internal conflicts to be able to declare its independence from the Americans. This is why, in Munich Merkel admitted that Europe continued to be dependent on the United States.

EADaily’s European Bureau

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