From the Queen to the Tsar: on Trump’s Travels to Europe
An eventful week passed from July 12 to 17 as US President Donald Trump made two high-profile visits to Europe: one to the United Kingdom where he met with the British monarchy and government officials, and one to Helsinki where he met with Russian President, Vladimir Putin. These events occurred in a complicated geopolitical context: on the one hand, it appears we are witnessing a paradigm shift in US-EU relations, with increasingly divergent viewpoints on a number of key issues, most notably security in Europe’s Eastern flank and the Middle East; on the other hand, the suspicions of Russian involvement in the US elections in order to skew the votes in Trump’s favour are still alive in the eyes of certain US officials and part of the American electorate.
The special relationship?
This visit to Britain was Trump’s first trip as President of the United States to the United Kingdom, and relations between the two powers have not been without tensions, a prime example being the exclusion of the American President from the guest list of the British royal wedding. Trump met with Queen Elisabeth II as well as Prime Minister Theresa May in the wake of Britain’s proposal to separate from the European Union. The British government had released a white paper detailing the UK’s proposal for breaking away from the European Union. This proposal aimed at maintaining closer economic ties with the EU after the breakup, such as establishing a free trade area for goods, looser arrangements for financial services and retaining Britain’s membership in several EU agencies. This did not sit well with several members of Theresa May’s cabinet who subsequently resigned from their positions, chief among them being Boris Johnson, who had served as Foreign Secretary; thus, Theresa May is facing an uphill battle in pushing her proposal past the Parliament.
The visits to Europe follow the NATO Summit in which the US President lambasted his NATO allies and made several controversial remarks.
A few iconic scenes of the tensions shrouding this visit stand out: one, reported by BBC, was Trump arriving a few minutes late with his official helicopter, Marine One, leaving Prime Minister May, her husband and 150 guests waiting for him a good few minutes. Then, prior the reception feast held in his honour by the British administration, Donald Trump shocked the media by stating that May had, in fact, botched the Brexit deal, going completely against his counsels and, on top of it all, suggested that Boris Johnson, who shares many of Trump’s own views and who opposed May’s Brexit proposition, would have made a better Prime Minister for Britain. He later went on to retract those comments, dismiss them as fake news, endorsing the UK regardless of its decision. Yet another, as reported by Vox, was with Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greeting the Queen with handshakes instead of the more customary bowing and curtseying; the most infamous, though was when Donald Trump cut off the Queen as they were walking in front of the honour guard, turning his back to the monarch after seemingly having lost sight of her.
The animosity towards the American President of at least a slice of the British public manifested before and during his visit, and tens of thousands of protesters gathered in London and elsewhere, jeering against Trump’s presence on British soil, the centrepiece of the protests being a giant balloon depicting Trump as an angry toddler that was flown above the Parliament Square. Trump confessed he did not feel welcome in Britain, citing this as the motivation for his curt visit to the UK.
The Helsinki Summit
A few days later, on July 16, he met with Vladimir Putin at Helsinki in a historical bilateral meeting that was, at least publicly, much more cordial and amicable, in spite of tensions looming over the US – Russia relations and the ongoing investigations into the allegations of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential elections in the US. The agenda consisted primarily of security issues, such as cooperation in counterterrorism or cyberterrorism, the situation in Ukraine, Syria and the Koreas, energy relations as well as the future of the US – Russia relations. Both leaders have commended each other and declared that the meeting was very fruitful and productive, even though Trump had previously criticised Russia for all its “sins and evils” in his now well-known brand of Twitter public diplomacy, and that Russia-US relations had previously hit a few historical low points diplomatically speaking.
In the broader context, the events occur in a period best characterised as disconcertion and growing bitterness between the United States and its EU and NATO allies, with divergent positions on several key foreign policy issues.
Amidst an ongoing domestic US investigation converging on Russia’s involvement in US elections and several of Trump’s aides being indicted for collusion, as well as numerous protests boycotting the summit, Vladimir Putin denied once more all accusations of any meddling by his government in the US elections, while Donald Trump, who had in the past downplayed the issue on several occasions, was again dismissive of it, stating instead that his foreign policy decisions could not be based on internal partisan affinities, and that improving bilateral relations with Russia is a key step forward towards improving the international security climate, hinting at a more prominent Russian role in advancing peace talks with North Korean authorities. Putin, in his turn, underscored that Russia and the United States are actively working together to resolve their divergent stances and find more points of contact between their interests; both presidents mentioned that they would look forward to collaborating on efforts to speed up the reconstruction of Syria. The United States’ anti-missile defence system was also talked about, with Putin stating that it is a “dangerous situation”, citing an implementation issue with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. In the aftermath of the meeting, Trump extended to Putin an invitation to the White House, and although the presidents declared themselves happy with how talks went, the shadow of wariness and distrust still looms over the prospects of how relations will evolve.
The meetings, side by side
Donald Trump’s visits to the United Kingdom and Helsinki need to be examined in both the near and the broad context. In the near context, the visits follow the NATO Summit in which the US President lambasted his NATO allies and made several controversial remarks: he accused Germany of being ‘a captive of Russia’ due to the latter’s role as a key energy provider for the German market and Germany’s endorsement of the contested North Stream 2 pipeline project, while also remarking that several European countries have concluded energy deals with Russia; then, he also requested that NATO countries increase their defence spending in a bid to get them to “share more of the burden and at a very minimum meet their already stated obligations” while threatening to withdraw the US from the alliance, despite the US apparently not meeting the new standard it demands, with (official) defence spending at 3.5% of its GDP in 2017 according to the World Bank. In the same context, Trump called his NATO allies out on what he sees as hypocrisy: they want protection from Russia, yet buy energy from it even to the point of critical dependence. Moreover, even though the summit was supposed to demonstrate a united NATO front against Russia, it merely went on to show the dissensions within the military alliance, in the eyes of a European diplomat. The NATO Summit was preceded by the G7 Summit, in which Trump had clamoured for the readmission of Russia among its ranks.
It is quite easy and tempting to evoke comparisons with the Yalta conference of 1945, and see Trump’s meeting with Putin as a geostrategic cartelisation of sorts, a first step towards coordinating their economic and military strategies through a series of mutual concessions, though given Trump’s unpredictability, Putin’s pragmatism and their acknowledged mutual distrust, how long such an arrangement would last is anyone’s guess.
In the broader context, the events occur in a period best characterised as disconcertion and growing bitterness between the United States and its EU and NATO allies, with divergent positions on several key foreign policy issues; most notorious amongst them are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and its offshoot, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump has argued against and withdrawn US support, as well as the Iran nuclear deal, which European officials have fought to uphold and which Trump withdrew the US from after repeatedly rebuking it. Furthermore, Trump made another controversial statement shortly after leaving the UK, when he said that the European Union is what he views as a ‘foe’, even more so than he views Russia or China, emphasizing his views that the EU (and, rather, individual EU countries) has taken advantage of the US commercially. Moreover, there are signs that Donald Trump is at loggerheads with members of his own Administration, and it has been stated that he largely disregarded all advice given to him by his advisors.
Nuances of power
In contrast to his predecessor, Donald Trump has taken a very hardline approach as far as Europe and NATO are concerned. Whereas Barack Obama had typically been mindful of what the United States’ allies had to say in issues of common concern, Trump’s stance is much more ambiguous. The controversies of his visits in Britain were indicative of this, and can be easily interpreted as his attempts to project power, undermine the authority of the local political establishment and the EU in general. His late arrival in his official helicopter was serious enough as far as diplomatic etiquette goes; his greeting of the Queen with a handshake instead of bowing as tradition demands, however, signals that he expected to be treated as her equal in terms of standing, disregarding her royal status as monarch of the United Kingdom, and it went up a notch when he walked in front of her during the inspection of the honour guard. Trump’s gaffe simply goes to further show the little attention he paid to protocol and customs, especially in front of the Queen’s military. This, along with his comments with regards to Theresa May’s Brexit plan, converges into the picture of Trump arriving in the UK intent not so much on negotiating, advising and reaching consensus but on directing and expecting his directives to be followed.
It is much more accurate to view the US and Russia as strange bedfellows and not as friends or even allies, bound by circumstances, lacking at present a comprehensive long-term vision or an overarching framework. The two powers still compete against one another, and each seeks to increase its own influence; they are not interdependent, in the vein of the European Union’s ideal, but ambivalent.
The significance of Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland is further nuanced when one takes into consideration the fact that Finland is an aspiring NATO member, a vision which attracted bitter criticism from Russia and strained diplomatic relations between the two states. That Finland – formally neutral ground as far as its security alignments go – has hosted a meeting between a prominent NATO member, on the one hand, and what NATO and Finland see as one of the main regional security threats gives way to the interpretation that the United States no longer acts on NATO’s behalf or no longer views it as an alliance in the same sense as had been the case prior to his presidency, which fits the general trend he has established since being sworn into office, namely projecting an independent American foreign security policy, without seeking consensus with US allies on their stances. At the same time, it is quite easy and tempting to evoke comparisons with the Yalta conference of 1945, and see Trump’s meeting with Putin as a geostrategic cartelisation of sorts, a first step towards coordinating their economic and military strategies through a series of mutual concessions, though given Trump’s unpredictability, Putin’s pragmatism and their acknowledged mutual distrust, how long such an arrangement would last is anyone’s guess.
Not so strange bedfellows
At any rate, Russia and the United States do have several points in common. For instance, both see a very strong geoeconomic and geopolitical rival in China, much more overtly in Trump’s case, and would have every interest to seek to contain it. Both countries are aware of China’s economic clout and the potential of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. China is also holding its ground in the South China Sea dispute and gradually increasing its military presence in the region, which would give it control not over the rich fishing and potential energy resources in the area, but also over one of the world’s most important trade routes, which would further increase its power. China is also the top destination for US energy exports and, in the context of its ongoing trade war with the United States, has recently made surprising threats to raise tariffs for its imports of American energy, which means that the United States needs to diversify its energy clients. With this in mind, it makes sense that the United States and Russia would seek to work together, and why the United States would diverge from the positions of its traditional allies. In Syria, although Trump had declared prior to his presidency that the US will withdraw from the Middle East, there have been numerous indirect clashes between Russia and the US, both diplomatically and militarily, but now, both powers have a common interest in stabilising the war-torn country; Iran has stationed troops in Syria and is staunchly refusing to leave its territory due to its immense military and financial investments, prompting threats of retaliation from Israel, which would further risk fanning the flames of war and instability with all the risks that ensue from it.
Trump’s strategy, as far as may be discerned, is to change Europe’s role from security and trade partner to that of a security and trade client, with Europe having to bid for the US economic and military support, instead of expecting it as part of an interdependent relationship.
That said, it is much more accurate to view the US and Russia as strange bedfellows and not as friends or even allies, bound by circumstances, lacking at present a comprehensive long-term vision or an overarching framework. The two powers still compete against one another, and each seeks to increase its own influence; they are not interdependent, in the vein of the European Union’s ideal, but ambivalent.
The Trumpian strategy
For instance, the United States has gradually increased its liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports and, as it seems, intends to aim its exports to Europe, which would downplay to a certain extent the importance that China now has in its energy exports, but would also bring it in direct competition with Russia; thus, his statements that Europe wants both protection from Russia by the US and to import energy from Russia take on a whole new meaning – if Europe wants US protection, it should start considering increasing its imports of US energy. At the same time, the US is engaged in an escalating trade war with the EU which, in spite of risking to strongly hurt the US economy, is yet another indication of Trump’s stance of asserting dominance and uphold the statements he made ever since before his election – that it is the United States’ allies that need the United States more and should come seek its help, not the other way around. Trump seeks to put pressure upon the EU; his trek from the West, where he encouraged the UK to separate from the EU, to the East, where he met with Putin and, as per public statements, have agreed several projects together, results in geopolitical pressures flanking Europe on both sides.
Trump’s strategy, as far as may be discerned, is to change Europe’s role from security and trade partner to that of a security and trade client, with Europe having to bid for the US economic and military support, instead of expecting it as part of an interdependent relationship, with Europe needing the US more than the other way around. By increasing US influence in Europe, he would increase the US influence against China’s Belt and Road project which is due to reach European markets and against Russia as an energy competitor and trade partner – in other words, Europe would become Trump’s wild card. This strategy could potentially backfire, though, as with the trade dispute between the US and the EU, European corporations can pose strong competitions to US companies in markets such as China, while also stimulating European economies to seek other trade partners, resulting in geoeconomic and geopolitical losses for the United States, while also damaging its reputation as a reliable partner. On the other hand, Trump’s attitude and public statements may well be part of his foreign policy strategy to keep his allies and adversaries at a loss as to what his next move might be. He agreed to a ‘ceasefire’, so to say, with the EU in their trade dispute, though analysts are sceptical as to how long it will last, weighing Trump’s capricious temper with the risks and potential domestic losses – both economic and political – of his trade wars, and their potential impact on the likelihood of a second term for Trump. Of course, if the rumours are true about Russian involvement in US elections, then Trump probably need not worry about it overmuch.
In the past, our vision for the emergence of a multipolar world involved continuity in that the US, the EU and NATO would work together on common issues and projects. Now, this pattern is shifting, with the US seeking to become a singular centre of geopolitical gravity; its support towards its allies is no longer a given, but a service to be haggled for and bid on; instead of neoliberalism, Trump is sporting a rather overt realpolitik-style approach. The message the US appears to be sending is that, if its partners want US protection and to avail themselves of their relationships with it, then they need to offer something in return – better trade arrangements, access to energy markets etc., else the United States is all too content and capable of going its own way, pursuing the policies it formulates in its own interests. Donald Trump’s penchant for unpredictability makes it likely, however, that this may be a bluff and an attempt to project a stronger position than is the case. Europe has rejected China’s proposal to form a joint anti-US trade alliance; stepping beyond the economic and commercial rationales for this decision, it sent a strong signal to Washington that, at the end of the day, the US cannot rely on good faith from Putin, himself a practitioner of realpolitik, nor can it expect to engage the entire world in a trade war and not suffer economically and damage his political capital, but that its only dependable partners are its traditional European allies. On the other hand, it can also be seen as a sign that Europe, well wary of China’s increasing economic influence, is running out of allies. Whether it will concede greater economic and energy influence to the United States, opt to work with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union or pitch into China’s Belt and Road project, it may find that it needs to change its diplomatic and security paradigm in order to avoid being caught between a rock and a hard place.