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10 August, 2018  ▪  Michael Binyon

Сontroversial tour

What will American President’s recent visits result in for global affairs?

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.

RELATED ARTICLE: A knockout for the UK

  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.

RELATED ARTICLE: Transatlantic contradictions​  

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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