Сon­tro­ver­sial tour

Michael Binyon on Don­ald Trump's re­cent vis­its to Europe and their re­sults for global af­fairs

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Michael Binyon, London

Few Amer­i­can pres­i­dents have ar­rived in Europe and caused so much con­ster­na­tion to Amer­ica’s al­lies.

Even be­fore Don­ald Trump landed in Brus­sels to at­tend his first Nato sum­mit meet­ing, he had be­gun to lam­bast the Euro­pean mem­bers of the de­fence al­liance. They were not spend­ing enough on de­fence, he said. They were re­ly­ing on Amer­ica to pro­tect them. They were “free­loaders”, shirk­ing their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Amer­ica would not go on pay­ing for their de­fence in­def­i­nitely. Nato, he sug­gested, had out­lived its use­ful­ness.

He picked first on Ger­many. Mr Trump crit­i­cised es­pe­cially the Nord Stream gas pipe­line now be­ing built un­der the Baltic Sea to from Rus­sia to Ger­many. This made Ger­many a “cap­tive” of Rus­sia, he said, since Ger­many would be wholly de­pen­dent on Rus­sia for its en­ergy. Why should the US pay for Ger­many’s de­fence when Ber­lin was hand­ing over “bil­lions of dol­lars” to the Rus­sians each year?

Clearly, he was in no mood to re­pair re­la­tions with An­gela Merkel, the Ger­man chan­cel­lor. He dis­likes her, re­sent­ing the sharp com­ments she has made about his ad­min­is­tra­tion and his poli­cies. The feel­ing is mu­tual, and Merkel lost no time in deny­ing that Ger­many was sub­ject to po­lit­i­cal pres­sure by Rus­sia. The pipe­line, she said, was purely a com­mer­cial deal.

Mr Trump’s at­tack came as Don­ald Tusk, the se­nior EU po­lit­i­cal of­fi­cial, warned him not to pick quar­rels with his al­lies. Amer­ica needed its friends, he said — es­pe­cially as it did not have many at the mo­ment. The EU coun­cil pres­i­dent was re­fer­ring to the re­cent ma­jor dis­agree­ments be­tween the EU and Wash­ing­ton, in­clud­ing Mr Trump’s with­drawal from the Paris cli­mate change agree­ment, his uni­lat­eral move of the US em­bassy in Is­rael to Jerusalem, his re­nounc­ing of the six-na­tion nu­clear deal with Iran and, most re­cently, his im­po­si­tion of high tar­iffs on im­ports of Euro­pean steel and alu­minium as well as his threat to start a full-scale trade war. That now threat­ens to es­ca­late, with re­tal­ia­tory EU tar­iffs and Trump’s prom­ise to im­pose new tar­iffs on a whole range of Euro­pean ex­ports to Amer­ica.

Pick­ing on Ger­many was a shrewd move. The gas pipe­line is con­tro­ver­sial within Europe. Many coun­tries in eastern Europe, in­clud­ing Ukraine, see it as a way to de­prive them of earn­ings for the tran­sit of gas across their ter­ri­to­ries, and a way to cre­ate a di­vi­sion be­tween Ger­many, the EU’s most pow­er­ful econ­omy, and much of eastern Europe. Amer­ica also has a his­tory of op­pos­ing Rus­sian en­ergy pipe­lines: Pres­i­dent Rea­gan tried to block con­struc­tion of the first Soviet pipe­line to Europe, threat­en­ing to im­pose sanc­tions on any Euro­pean com­pany that took part in build­ing it. It led to one of the few big con­fronta­tions be­tween Rea­gan and Mar­garet Thatcher, then Britain’s prime min­is­ter.

The two-day Nato sum­mit there­fore got off to an ill-tem­pered start, with the Euro­peans ner­vous that Trump would an­nounce ei­ther cuts in the US fi­nan­cial sup­port or an end to joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises with the Euro­peans. In­stead Trump took them all by sur­prise by say­ing that all the al­lies should raise their de­fence bud­gets to 4 per cent of GDP. Four years ago, at the Nato sum­mit in Wales, they promised to raise it to 2 per cent. At present only a few coun­tries, in­clud­ing Britain, spend that pro­por­tion of their bud­get on de­fence, but spend­ing has been ris­ing fast, at around 3 per cent a year. It will still take some years for de­fence bud­gets in big coun­tries such as Ger­many, Italy and France to reach 2 per. Ask­ing them to raise it now to 4 per cent — higher that the pro­por­tion spent in the US it­self — is very provoca­tive.

Mr Trump’s has sev­eral mo­tives in bad-mouthing his Euro­pean al­lies. First he wants to show his sup­port­ers at home that he is vig­or­ously pur­su­ing his promised “Amer­ica first” poli­cies. Sec­ondly, he is re­tal­i­at­ing for the con­stant crit­i­cism of his poli­cies in Europe, which angers him con­sid­er­ably. Thirdly, and most im­por­tant, he was try­ing to fore­stall the ex­pected crit­i­cism from his Nato al­lies of his meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Putin in Helsinki only days af­ter the Nato sum­mit.

The Euro­peans know that weak­en­ing Nato is a main aim of the Rus­sian leader. Few think that Trump is so naïve that he would al­low him­self to be per­suaded by Putin to with­draw from Nato ex­er­cises, slash the Nato bud­get or oth­er­wise emas­cu­late the

al­liance. But many fear Putin will en­cour­age Trump’s scep­ti­cism over Nato and per­suade him to fo­cus US at­ten­tion else­where.

What is more likely, and most alarm­ing to some coun­tries, es­pe­cially Ukraine, is that Trump is seek­ing a “grand bar­gain” in his talks with Putin. This is the re­vival of an idea that has been dis­cussed for at least a year that Rus­sia will do what it can to re­move the Ira­nian forces now en­camped in Syria and help to keep up the pres­sure on Tehran over its nu­clear pro­gramme. In re­turn, Trump would not press for the re­turn of Crimea to Ukraine and would lift some US sanc­tions on Rus­sia.

The idea has been vig­or­ously pro­moted by Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emi­rates and Is­rael, who are all close to Trump and share his sus­pi­cions of Iran. Such a bar­gain would ap­peal to both Trump and Putin, as it would break a num­ber of log­jams. But it is anath­ema to Ukraine and much of eastern Europe as it would ap­pear to ac­cept the Rus­sian seizure of Crimea. Crit­ics also ask whether Putin would hon­our any prom­ise to make the Minsk agree­ment work, and whether Rus­sian forces are ac­tu­ally able to re­move the large Iran mil­i­tary force from Syria.

Straight af­ter leav­ing Nato Trump be­gan his much de­layed visit to Britain, where he im­me­di­ately caused fur­ther chaos and dif­fi­cul­ties. He ar­rived at a mo­ment of high po­lit­i­cal cri­sis in Britain. Theresa May’s gov­ern­ment is strug­gling to con­vince the cabi­net and the Con­ser­va­tive party to back its lat­est pro­pos­als for Brexit, which are much “softer” than most Brexit cam­paigns want. In ef­fect, the pro­pos­als would keep Britain tied eco­nom­i­cally to the cus­toms union and sin­gle mar­ket and would con­tinue many other links with Brus­sels.

The plan has caused fury among the Brex­i­teers and prompted the res­ig­na­tion of Britain’s chief ne­go­tia­tor, David Davis, as well as Boris John­son, the for­eign sec­re­tary. May is now try to halt any more di­vi­sions while fac­ing the real prospect that her com­pro­mise pro­pos­als will be de­feated in par­lia­ment and that Britain will leave the EU in March with no deal at all.

Trump de­clared on ar­riv­ing that he would like to talk to Boris John­son, an old friend — which would be a clear breach of pro­to­col. He then also said that May’s Brexit pro­pos­als would not work, and would not al­low Britain to ne­go­ti­ate a sep­a­rate trade deal with Amer­ica. Mrs May was left awk­wardly try­ing to smooth over the dif­fer­ences — and Trump then re­versed his state­ments, say­ing his ear­lier re­marks (which were recorded) were just “fake news”. In the cir­cum­stances, not much se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal ne­go­ti­a­tion was pos­si­ble with his Bri­tish hosts.

There were huge demon­stra­tions in London against the visit, though Trump did not see them or see the huge bal­loon of him­self as a baby in nap­pies that was floated above the cap­i­tal. In­stead, he did what he re­ally wanted most of all — he had tea with the Queen at Wind­sor Cas­tle, with pho­tographs to show ev­ery­one back in Amer­ica. And then he flew to Scot­land, birth­place of his mother and where he owns two golf cour­ses. He played some golf and briefly re­laxed be­fore fly­ing off to Helsinki for the most con­tro­ver­sial part of his Euro­pean visit — the meet­ing with Putin. He leaves Amer­ica’s al­lies ex­hausted by his visit and even more un­sure how to handle the con­tro­ver­sial US leader in the fu­ture.

Pres­i­dent Trump flew black to Amer­ica on Mon­day amid fu­ri­ous ac­cu­sa­tions of trea­son and a dis­grace­ful per­for­mance dur­ing his sum­mit meet­ing in Helsinki with Pres­i­dent Putin.

Trump as­ton­ished and an­gered many se­nior Re­pub­li­cans and mem­bers of his own gov­ern­ment for re­fus­ing to con­demn the Rus­sian leader for al­leged Rus­sian med­dling in the US elec­tions. Con­trary to his own in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, he said he said he saw no rea­son why the Krem­lin would have in­ter­fered. “Pres­i­dent Putin was ex­tremely strong and pow­er­ful in his de­nial to­day,” he told a press con­fer­ence.

Trump said Amer­ica’s re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia had changed af­ter a “deeply pro­duc­tive di­a­logue” be­tween the two lead­ers. They promised to work to­gether to help re­solve the Syr­ian civil war, in which they have back op­po­site sides. But there was no sug­ges­tion that Trump came to any “grand bar­gain” with Putin over Ukraine and the Mid­dle East, or any re­port that they had dis­cussed drop­ping US sanc­tions on Rus­sia over its an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and in­ter­fer­ence in eastern Ukraine.

Many of Trump’s crit­ics in Amer­ica were ask­ing what the one-day meet­ing had achieved. No doc­u­ments were signed, and there was lit­tle ev­i­dence of tan­gi­ble progress on arms con­trol, the Mid­dle East or any other is­sues di­vid­ing Rus­sia and the West.

In­stead, Trump seemed to go out of his way to de­fend Putin from ac­cu­sa­tions of in­ter­fer­ing in the US elec­tions, blam­ing in­stead the Democrats, Hi­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials for the cur­rent poor state of re­la­tions.

This pro­voked fury in Wash­ing­ton. “No prior pres­i­dent has ever abased him­self more ab­jectly be­fore a tyrant,” said John McCain, a se­nior Repub­li­can sen­a­tor and for­mer Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. Paul Ryan, the Repub­li­can speaker of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, said: “The pres­i­dent must ap­pre­ci­ate that Rus­sia is not our ally”.

Trump’s be­hav­iour be­mused most of his Euro­pean al­lies also. They are fu­ri­ous that he de­scribed the Euro­pean Union as his “foe” just be­fore meet­ing Putin and were amazed that he blamed the frosty re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia on “many years of US fool­ish­ness”. They were re­lieved, how­ever, that Trump did not say any­thing to un­der­mine Nato or add fur­ther crit­i­cisms to those he made to the Nato sum­mit in Brus­sels a few days ear­lier.


Amer­ica’s al­lies believe, how­ever, that the mere fact of the Helsinki en­counter and the length of the talks — stretch­ing well be­yond the sched­uled 90 min­utes — was al­ways go­ing to be a win for Putin. At a time when West­ern coun­tries have ac­cused him of in­ter­fer­ing in their elec­tions, desta­bil­is­ing eastern Ukraine and poi­son­ing Bri­tish ci­ti­zens with nerve agents, a hand­shake from Trump was al­ways go­ing to be seen as a prize show­ing Rus­sians that their coun­try was not iso­lated abroad.

The ini­tial chem­istry be­tween the two men did not ap­pear to go well. Both ar­rived late for the meet­ing, and both ap­peared un­smil­ing for the first photo op­por­tu­nity. In­deed, Putin gave off an air of sullen in­dif­fer­ence as the pho­tog­ra­phers took pic­tures. He merely blinked and shifted in his seat when Trump con­grat­u­lated him on a “re­ally great World Cup, one of the best ever”.

At the later joint press con­fer­ence they ap­peared more re­laxed, though Putin spoke lit­tle, pour­ing ridicule on a ques­tion about whether Rus­sia had any “kom­pro­mat” — com­pro­mis­ing ma­te­rial — on the US Pres­i­dent. For his part, Trump ap­peared to go out of his way to de­flect any crit­i­cism of Rus­sia and its leader.

He claimed that, al­though re­la­tions be­tween Amer­ica and Rus­sia had never been worse, all that changed when they met. Diplo­mats were left won­der­ing what, if any­thing, of sub­stance was dis­cussed by the two men when they were left alone with­out their aides.

Trump will now have a tough job to con­vince scep­ti­cal Re­pub­li­cans and hos­tile Democrats at home that his meet­ings in Europe were a suc­cess. Many will believe that he left re­la­tions with Amer­ica’s al­lies worse than be­fore he ar­rived, while in­dulging the Rus­sians in a sum­mit that left them look­ing good on the world stage but ap­peared to achieve noth­ing of sub­stance.

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