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With friends like Donald Trump, who needs enemies?

Photo/Getty Images/Listener illustration

US President Donald Trump treats his Western allies to a tongue-lashing while cosying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, causing alarm at home and around the world.

Donald Trump seems to be driven by a seething combination of ego, insecurity and the base instincts of greed, vengefulness and triumphalism. There’s no evidence of a coherent philosophy, moral code or even a rudimentary set of ideas. He doesn’t believe in the enlightenment ideals of fraternity, liberty and tolerance, or the “golden rule”, or the concept of objective truth. He doesn’t believe in anything that emerges from the media, except for Fox News and various far-right outlets, nor in what his officials and experts tell him. And it becomes clearer by the week that he doesn’t believe in the West, the community of advanced nations that share a commitment to democracy and human rights and whose economic, political and military alliance has been the primary stabilising influence on international affairs since 1945.

In the space of a few weeks, President Trump, whose recent predecessors embraced, if not revelled in, their unofficial status as the leader of the Western world, has disparaged and undermined the alliance’s key institutions and organisations: the Group of Seven (G7), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Trump’s cheer squad, represented locally by broadcaster Mike Hosking, portrays his bull-in-a-china-shop rampage through Europe as a triumph, a bracing gust of fresh air blowing away stuffy diplomatic niceties and double-talk like cobwebs.

However, Trump’s critics – “the haters” – see his “telling it like it is” in a different light. Douglas Lute was the US permanent representative to Nato from 2013-17. After Trump turned the Nato summit in Brussels earlier this month into a confrontation, Lute said, “The one thing that must be delivered [at these summits] is unity. Anything that erodes unity … is very destructive and an opening for anyone whose aim is to divide the alliance.”

First, Trump publicly declared that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that increases Germany’s supply of Russian natural gas makes the former “captive” to the latter. Why, he asked, should the US foot the bill to protect Germany from the very nation with which it’s willingly engaged in a dependent relationship?

Powerful in his denial: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Photo/Getty Images

German leader Angela Merkel, who grew up in the Soviet satellite state of East Germany, pointed out that she and many of her countrymen and women have first-hand experience of what being a captive of Russia is really like. She could also have wondered aloud whether the fact that China holds more than US$1 trillion of US government debt puts America in a dependent relationship with an adversary.

Not surprisingly, given his history of weaselling out of financial obligations and exploiting bankruptcy provisions, Trump claims this indebtedness gives the US “a lot of power” over China. This is the notion that if you owe the bank $1000, you’ve got a problem; if you owe the bank $1 million, the bank has a problem. There may be an element of truth in that but surely something similar applies to the Russo-German situation: Russia could plunge Germany into disarray by turning off the tap but it would also kill off a lucrative arrangement and do lasting damage to its reputation as a reliable supplier and trading partner.

If Trump is genuinely concerned about the pipeline’s security implications – and there’s a suspicion that US energy companies would like a slice of the German action – why would he raise the issue in a manner that makes it politically difficult, if not impossible, for Merkel to address? Mike Carpenter, a deputy assistant secretary of defence during the Obama presidency, agrees the pipeline is a “strategic mistake” but argues that Trump is so politically toxic in Europe “whatever he says has the opposite impact”.

Projecting power

Trump berated the Europeans for not spending more on defence. He certainly isn’t the first US political figure to harbour the not entirely unjustified suspicion that Western European governments skimp on military spending in order to maintain generous social security programmes. Nor is he the first to ignore, or fail to appreciate, the fact that recent history has made Europeans, particularly Germans, wary of all things military, making defence spending a political hot potato.

Trump also framed the issue in misleading terms. Nato members fund their own military forces, rather than contributing to a common fund, so there’s no shortfall for the US to make up. And once the nuclear umbrella is taken out of the equation, the discrepancy between the 4%-plus of GDP that the US spends on its military forces and the Europeans’ less than 2% isn’t particularly germane to the defence of Western and Central Europe against a threat from the east.

The US spends a vast amount on defence because it’s determined to remain the most powerful nation on Earth. It wants to be able to project power to every corner of the globe; the Pentagon has long been preoccupied with the challenge of fighting simultaneous wars against the Soviet Union/Russia and China. The most costly US military endeavours – as Trump himself has alluded to – were the wars it chose to fight in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, rather than its Nato deployments. The invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, launched by President George W Bush, were in response to the 9/11 attacks on the US homeland. Incidentally, 9/11 was the first time Nato invoked Section 5, the collective-defence clause of its founding treaty, which holds that an attack against one member will be regarded as an attack on all. When the US came under attack, the Europeans didn’t hesitate to declare solidarity.

Finally, Trump went out of his way to insult and undermine the leaders of his two closest allies. After going after Merkel, he turned his baleful gaze on British Prime Minister Theresa May, rubbishing her handling of the Brexit negotiations and promoting the cause of former foreign secretary and leading Brexiteer, Boris Johnson. Johnson’s recent resignation was another step in his campaign to supplant May, a campaign so overt that even our Acting Prime Minister, Winston Peters, is up with the play.

Donald Trump: still counting on “Maga” populism. Photo/Getty Images

Alliances on life support

Trump’s pro-Brexit rhetoric reveals a deep antipathy towards the EU, an entity whose raison d’être, in large part, was to end centuries of warfare by locking nations into a cooperative relationship. Rather unnecessarily, he told an interviewer that he regards the EU as “a foe”, and given that Trump is actively seeking to depose May and Merkel, it’s safe to assume they don’t regard him as a friend. His interference in other countries’ domestic affairs is so brazen, and his intentions so clear, you’d almost think he’d taken a leaf out of the Russian playbook.

The insulting language, the jarring characterisations – the EU is a foe, Nato is obsolete – and the indifference to the consequences of his anti-diplomacy have got some thinking the unthinkable.

European defence analyst François Heisbourg told the Daily Beast website that Trump “has a vision of the world in which everything is bilateral and the US can monetise its power … It takes us to the end of Nato, the end of the WTO and possibly the end of the EU. The EU is facing so many challenges already, Trump may think it has reached tipping point and he can push it over.”

On a recent three-week swing through Europe, US academic Abraham Newman found his contacts in government circles and academia questioning American values and behaviour to an unprecedented degree: “For the first time, I felt Europeans struggle with the idea that the US might not just be a bully, but a threat.”

Depths of pessimism are being plumbed across the Atlantic, too. “Even at the heights of previous crises … the disputes were over policy, not over the fundamentals of the alliance,” said Ivo Daalder, Lute’s predecessor as US permanent representative to Nato. “Once you begin questioning those fundamentals, the essence of alliance begins to erode, which could lead to its break-up faster than people think.”

And for an Antipodean perspective we turn to Mike Rann, former Australian high commissioner to the UK, former Premier of South Australia and a leading light of the University of Auckland student left, back in the days when Tim Shadbolt was a firebrand. Describing Trump’s European tour as a “theatre of the grotesque”, Rann suggested he was “abdicating the role of every president since Woodrow Wilson in 1918 – that of leader of the free world”.

I’d quibble with that on two counts: first, Trump has never even tried on the role for size; second, as US historian William Hitchcock recently outlined on Politico, not every president has aspired to international leadership.

In the 1920s and 30s, wrote Hitchcock, Republican Presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover “trimmed their sails to this isolationist sentiment” following American involvement in the First World War. When World War II broke out in September 1939, their inclination was to stay well out of it. The US didn’t enter the war until Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in December 1941, hence Winston Churchill’s observation that “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” (An enduring conspiracy theory held that President Franklin Roosevelt knew Japan was preparing to strike Pearl Harbour but sat on his hands because he wanted an excuse to take the US into the war.)

The struggle between the Republican Party’s isolationists and internationalists resumed after the war, coming to a head in the build-up to the 1952 presidential elections. The isolationist standard bearer was Ohio senator Robert Taft, who considered Nato provocative and the Marshall Plan, under which the US financed the rebuilding of war-torn Western Europe, wasteful. The internationalists were led by Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the allied expeditionary forces in Europe during World War II and afterwards first supreme commander of Nato. Eisenhower secured the Republican nomination at a closely contested convention in Chicago and went on to defeat the Democrat candidate, Adlai Stevenson. In office, Eisenhower set the US on a course in international affairs that the next 10 presidents – five Democrats, five Republicans – seldom deviated from. Then came Trump.

President Dwight Eisenhower. Photo/Getty Images

Dark forces

Trump is knowingly tapping into a dark corner of the US psyche: the paranoid urge to retreat into “fortress America” and pull up the drawbridge; the tendency to blame the astonishing inequality and the poor’s stagnant living standards on foreigners rather than their own fixation with capitalist dogma and distrust of government; and the provincialism that loathes what it doesn’t know or understand, partly because it perceives assumed superiority. (In that regard, it’s arguable that the almost de rigueur anti-Americanism of the West’s educated metropolitan elites over the past 50 years contributed in a small way to Trump’s rise.)

But there’s a suspicion, bordering on conviction, that there’s more to this than opportunistic pandering to an insular, infinitely credulous voter base. (One of historian Arnold Toynbee’s indicators of a society in decline was the simultaneous presence of archaism – nostalgia for a mythical golden age of prosperity and social cohesion – and futurism, the belief that a new golden age is imminent. Trump’s “Make America Great Again [Maga]” movement is a combination of the two.)

Working on the premise that the Russians recruited, seduced or suborned Trump on his first visit to Moscow in 1987, New York’s Jonathan Chait has pulled together all the known strands of this convoluted saga. If Chait’s premise and the narrative that proceeds from it are correct – he provides a mountain of supporting evidence of varying consistency – “it would mean the Cold War, which Americans had long considered won, has dissolved into the bizarre spectacle of [Ronald] Reagan’s party abetting the hijacking of American government by a former KGB agent.”

Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College, baulks at the proposition that Trump is the Muscovite president. However, he believes it should go without saying that the Russians zeroed in on “a man whose venality, vanity and vulgarity are like a menu of recruitable weaknesses”, and that the sheer volume of contacts precludes an innocent explanation.

“There is no way to read Chait’s story – or to do any judicious review of Trump’s dealings with the Russians over the years – and reach any other conclusion but that the Kremlin has damaging and deeply compromising knowledge about the President,” wrote Nichols on Politico. “Whether it is using such materials, and how, is a matter of legitimate argument. That such things exist, however, and that they seem to preoccupy the President, should be obvious.”

It’s worth noting that Nichols’ piece appeared before Trump met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and, yet again, notwithstanding special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers for hacking and otherwise interfering in the 2016 election, took Putin’s word for it that Russia had nothing to do with anything.

Trump’s willingness to accept Putin’s denials harks back to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and President John Kennedy’s apparent reluctance to disbelieve various Kremlin envoys’ assurances that the Soviet Union wasn’t installing nuclear missiles on Cuba, less than 200km from Key West, Florida. In Kennedy’s defence, the Soviet operation was cloaked in intense secrecy, the US was relying on spy plane rather than satellite imagery and the overall situation was far more fraught, with West Berlin also in play and the realistic prospect that the crisis would trigger full-scale nuclear war.

Likewise, Trump’s clumsy, equivocal retractions – “I misspoke” – had an echo of the Watergate scandal in which President Richard Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler’s stance evolved from accusing Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of “shabby journalism” and “character assassination” to “I misspoke myself” to “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.”

Trump’s astounding performance at his joint press conference with Putin was too much even for some of his Republican enablers, although the harshest critics were the usual suspects – Senators Bob Corker, Jeff Flake and John McCain – who are on their way out of politics. It was also noteworthy that Republican ire was almost exclusively directed at Russia and not accompanied by the urgently required unequivocal declaration that the Mueller investigation be allowed to run its course and the cards allowed to fall where they may.

John Kennedy. Photo/Getty Images

Don’t hold your breath

As Barack Obama said this week, we’re living in “strange and uncertain times”. Even if you take a neutral view of Trump’s conduct – that he’s putting America first, as he promised when he launched his campaign for the presidency, and as the American people, via the Electoral College, empowered him to do – the implications are alarming, since putting America first seems to mean dismantling the world order that has, by and large, delivered peace and prosperity to the West for over 70 years.

To take one example: some defence analysts are already suggesting that if Trump pulls the US out of Nato, the nations of Western Europe will have to choose between developing their own nuclear arsenals – or, in the case of the UK and France, beefing up existing arsenals – or resigning themselves to “Finlandisation”, the term coined to describe post-war Finland’s compliance towards the Soviet Union, its vastly more powerful and ruthless neighbour.

There is a temptation to view Trump as an aberration and hunker down in the hope that the US comes to its senses in 2020 and normal service is resumed. Trump’s control of the Republican Party, and its consequent embrace of Maga populism, suggests this may be wishful thinking. For instance, this is how Jim Inhofe, the second most senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, summed up Trump’s European adventure: “I think he has effectively reasserted the US as the leader of the free world.” Black is white. Up is down. Sabotage is leadership.

For New Zealanders contemplating this ominous outlook, there’s one small if somewhat grim consolation: we know what it’s like to be abandoned by the US.

This article was first published in the July 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.