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17th of July 2018

Economy



Trump knows Europe needs America more than America needs Europe

Edward Luce

July 12, 2018 Print this page

Punch-drunk Europe would do well to study the fate of American liberals. The more Donald Trump denigrates Nato, the greater outrage he provokes in Europe. Moral certainty feels good. But it can bring on intellectual blindness. Time and again, Mr Trump’s domestic critics have chosen righteous indignation over analytic clarity. Women could never vote for Mr Trump, Democrats reassured themselves. Then a majority of white women did. The US would never withdraw troops from Europe, says Brussels. Yet Mr Trump could do precisely that. Which side of the Atlantic would have the most to lose?

Mr Trump knows more than his critics give him credit for. He invents his own facts. But he instinctively grasps other people’s bottom lines. Mr Trump’s portrayal of Nato is profoundly error-ridden. It is also fundamentally correct. On the first, America accounts for nothing like 70 per cent of Europe’s security budget. Its actual share, as the International Institute for Strategic Studies has set out, is a fraction of that. Five per cent of America’s defence budget goes directly on Europe. Nor is Europe “delinquent” on its obligations. Since pledging four years ago to meet the 2 per cent of GDP target within a decade, Europe’s Nato members have increased their spending by $87bn in real terms, which is more than double what the US spends annually on European security. So much for Mr Trump’s relationship with the facts.

But quietly correcting Mr Trump — even shrieking it from the rooftops — will do nothing to change his mind. Technocracy cannot compete with diatribe. The most lethal demagogue is one who grasps an underlying reality. Mr Trump knows that Europe needs America more than America needs Europe. Every time Mr Trump meets a Nato partner, or listens to many of his advisers, he is told his actions are weakening US security. That is true. America’s power is magnified by alliances. Wrecking them reduces Washington’s global clout. But the bigger loser is Europe. Its survival depends on America’s guarantee. A resurgent Russia poses deep threats to Europe’s eastern borders, its internal cohesion and ultimately its prosperity. With America’s continued presence, Europe can rebuff Vladimir Putin’s probing. Without it, Europe would be dangerously exposed.

Mr Trump needs no adviser to tell him that America’s position gives it greater room for complacency. The US is flanked by the world’s two largest oceans — the Atlantic and the Pacific. In Mexico and Canada, it also has two of the world’s most benign neighbours, even taking into account Mr Trump’s constant needling. Geography is Mr Trump’s bottom line. Yet Europe is doing its best imitation of Hillary Clinton. Like Mrs Clinton, Europe’s leaders believe that reason and public sentiment are on their side. Like her, they overestimate both.

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Mr Trump has shown that unreason — the constant repetition of caricature and lies — can alter public opinion. Worse, big shifts in worldview can be pulled off quickly. Two years ago, most Republicans believed firmly in Nato. Today just 40 per cent of Republican voters think America should remain a member of the transatlantic alliance. More than half of Republicans say that Mr Trump’s relationship with Mr Putin is a good thing for America. So much for the electorate’s wisdom. What about Europe’s voters?

A year ago, Europe’s leaders could be forgiven for misjudging Mr Trump. There is no precedent for what he is doing. All his predecessors, including Barack Obama, called on America’s Nato partners to increase their defence spending. None of them would have dreamt of undermining European liberal democracy. Yet that is what Mr Trump is doing.

On Monday, he travels to Helsinki to meet Mr Putin. He joins Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, and champion of “illiberal democracy”, and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s leading populist, in Mr Putin’s growing western fan club. The first time they met, which was almost exactly a year ago, Mr Trump agreed to set up a US-Russia task force on cyber security. That was like a chicken agreeing with the fox to patrol the night. Mr Trump’s advisers persuaded him to climb down. No one knows what the two leaders informally agreed.

Nor will we know what they discuss on Monday. Mr Trump has insisted on a one-to-one meeting before the formal summit. But recent history should enable Europe’s leaders to guess the contours of their agenda. At his latest rallies in mid-America, Mr Trump has repeatedly called Mr Putin a “fine” man. He has also described America’s allies as “worse than our enemies”. Liberal America famously took Mr Trump literally but not seriously. Europe should not repeat that mistake.

edward.luce@ft.com

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