Donald Trump has touched down in Europe and he’s barely got a good word to say about any of us. He’s already the walking cliché of the brash American complaining about the size of the servings and why everybody talks with such funny accents. After describing the UK as being in “turmoil” (our nation apparently collapsed the moment Boris Johnson left the wheelhouse) he has now turned his scorn on Germany who he claims is “totally controlled by Russia”. It is, of course, so characteristic of this President that he should accuse others of crimes for which he himself might be guilty. “Totally controlled by Russia” is the rubric being tested by Robert Mueller and, thus far, the answer has certainly not been a “no”.
Nothing surprises us anymore. Trump is the bully who arrives in a new schoolyard and lacks the courage to stand up against the tougher kids. Instead, he throws around his weight roughing up the quiet nerds who bring the right books to class. In this case, it’s the allies he can knock around with minimal pushback. None of Canada, Mexico, France, Germany, or the UK are going to respond to Trump’s meaty insults in the way that Vladimir Putin would.
So what we already have, on day one of Donald’s European Vacation, is the American president acting out another of his odd little psycho-dramas, rooted in his own unhealthy relationship with his father Fred (another bully). Just as he had to prove to Papa Trump that he too could be the mercenary property developer, it seems that he’s proving to Papa Vlad that he too can impose his will on those weaker than himself. The NATO allies, meanwhile, must grit their teeth and smile. Another two years, they say to themselves… Only another two years.
What’s not to be lost in all this is that Donald Trump love of big headlines obscures most of the facts. He might be right about the financial commitment of some NATO allies who pledged to increase spending to 2% of GDP. Germany aims to meet that target by 2024. Yet what Trump’s bellicosity distracts from is the reality of military spending, especially that of the United States where Trump himself is overseeing a rebuilding of the military, itself arguably fulfilling some psychological rather than national necessity. Simply: NATO does not work on the basis of individual nations contributing sums of money to the organization. Germany’s less than 2% represents its own spending on defence. In terms of NATO, it remains the second largest contributor after the United States, shouldering 15% of the budget compared to the US which pays for 22%.
In terms of Russia’s relationship with Germany, Trump might also be right to warn about their unhealthy reliance on Russian gas. The construction of the Nord Stream 2 has been seen as ever greatly proof that German is vulnerable to pressure from Russia and that would only increase if, as Gazprom has suggested, it’s followed by the construction of a Nord Steam 3. The UK itself has recently seen worrying signs that it has too little gas storage, with the closure of Centrica’s Rough storage site off the coast of Yorkshire now looking particularly short-sighted. Yet if these are live issues in regional politics, they are also more nuanced than Trump allows. How far does energy security weaken our ability to condemn Russia? Without a doubt, it does limit our hands but, in turn, Russia is extremely reliant on Europe for the bulk of its fuel revenue. Russia might threaten Europe and Germany, in particular, by cutting off the gas, but it’s not as though Germany couldn’t look elsewhere in the long term. The pressure doesn’t come from Putin turning off the gas but the West turning off the source of Russian money. That is the real power in the dynamic. What Trump routinely forgets (or chooses to ignore) is that Russia’s economy is minuscule compared to the economies he routinely threatens with sanctions.
Not that reality will matter much in the coming days. You can talk geopolitics or you can talk about Donald Trump. It’s unlikely that the logic of one crosses over into the logic of the other. You can talk about the real influence of Russia or the influence that Russia casts in the President’s mind. You can talk about the reality of North Korea’s nuclear program or you can talk about the “handshake” which Trump believes has solved the problems of the entire region. You can talk about Russia’s involvement in Syria or you can talk about Trump’s obsession with red lines and Tomahawk strikes. You can talk about the Iran Deal or you can talk about the President’s strange obsession with unpicking the work of his predecessor.
All of which makes the next few days both fascinating but probably irrelevant. There will be insults, threats, and perhaps even a few tears. Yet the allies will know — indeed must know — that this is just “The Trump Show”. It’s filler until the regular scheduled programming resumes. They will grit their teeth and smile. Just another two years…