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Trump Once Again Throws Europe Under the Bus

Withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty could lead to another arms race in Europe.

Donald Trump Vladimir Putin
Presidents Donald Trump of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia answer questions from reporters in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018 (Office of the President of the Republic of Finland/Juhani Kandell)

There have been some constants in Donald Trump’s otherwise haphazard foreign policy. He will invariably side with Russia and against America’s allies in Europe. He sympathizes more with authoritarian regimes than democracies. He doesn’t believe in multilateralism or free trade.

Anything the president’s advisors or allies can portray as a show of “strength” Trump will support.

Anything his supporters in the Republican Party or the conservative media portray as “weakness”, whether it is consultations, compromises or concessions, Trump will resist.

The latest casualty of this simplistic, zero-sum worldview is the Open Skies Treaty, which includes most countries in the Northern Hemisphere and allows reciprocal flights over military facilities.

Cold War ideologues

Politico reports that Open Skies has long been considered a stabilizing force, especially for nations that lack spy satellites or other high-tech means to monitor military sites.

European allies had asked Trump not to pull out of the agreement. Ukraine has most recently invoked it to monitor Russian troop movements on its eastern frontier.

Fred Kaplan, who specializes in American military and security policy, writes the president was swayed by Cold War ideologues, “who improbably still occupy positions of influence.”

Tim Morrison, who argued for leaving the Open Skies Treaty when he served in the National Security Council, blames Russia in an op-ed for The New York Times. Open Skies, he argues, didn’t lead to the “openness” it promised.

It’s the same argument the American right made against the Iran nuclear deal: it didn’t make Iran a better country.

Which is precisely why we need these treaties.

Allies don’t need to inspect each other’s military facilities. We make such deals with Iran and Russia, because they are expansionist and untrustworthy.

Arms race

To assuage European concerns, Morrison calls on Trump to “recommit” to “working against Mr Putin’s aggression” — something he has never committed to.

Marshall Billingslea, Trump’s arms control envoy, says he isn’t afraid leaving the treaty will trigger a new arms race. But if it does, he told a Washington think tank,

We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion.

Which is a simplistic reading of how America won the Cold War and again overlooks America’s allies, who don’t want to be caught in the middle of an arms race — again.

Against Europe

But Trump has never cared about Europe’s concerns. He has sided against Europe and European interests whenever he could:

  • Raising tariffs on European agricultural goods and steel to 25 percent, European-made aircraft to 15 percent and aluminum to 10 percent.
  • Killing any hope of a transatlantic trade and investment pact.
  • Paralyzing the World Trade Organization by blocking judges to its appellate body.
  • Betraying Kurdish militias in the north of Syria, whom the EU also backed in their fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
  • Prompting Defense Secretary James Mattis, whom many in Europe saw as a safeguard against Trump’s whims, to resign.
  • Pulling out of the Paris climate accord.
  • Allowing the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev signed in 2010 to lapse.
  • Withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan signed in 1987, which had effectively banned nuclear weapons from Europe.
  • Withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal Obama negotiated with Iran and other worlds powers, despite European urgings to remain in the agreement.
  • Threatening a 25-percent tariff on European cars if Britain, France and Germany didn’t falsely claim Iran was violating the agreement.
  • Siding so completely with the right-wing government of Israel, and its desire to annex the West Bank, that the Palestinian Authority — to which the EU is the biggest international donor — has ended its security cooperation with the Jewish state.
  • Calling for Russia’s reentry in the G7, despite its continued occupation of Crimea and other parts of southeastern Ukraine.
  • Incessantly hectoring European allies for failing to spend 2 percent of their GDPs on defense, including at a memorial service for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which was the only time in NATO’s history the Article 5 mutual-defense clause was invoked (to defend America).
  • Calling NATO “obsolete” and throwing doubt on America’s security commitment to Europe.

And that’s not listing the opprobrium Trump and his underlings — notably his undiplomatic ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell — have heaped on Europe, which has poisoned good will.

Lessons of history

Trump is ignoring the lessons of history.

NATO was designed to stifle the motives for war; the EU was meant to kill the means. Ryan Bohl has explained why encouraging the continent that produced two world wars to fashion swords from plowshares is a terrible idea.

If Europe rearms and remains united, it opens the door to transatlantic disunity. If Europe rearms and fragments, it means a return to history. If Europe doesn’t rearm, it could not stand up to an assertive Russia, a hostile Turkey and a China with increasingly far-flung ambitions.

Pre-war American strategists, such as Halford Mackinder, Alfred Thayer Mahan and Nicholas Spykman, understood that if a power in Eurasia could exercise decisive influence over two of the world’s three most economically productive regions — East Asia and Western Europe — the third, North America, would not be far behind.

World War II drove that message home.

During the Cold War, the fear was that Russia could exercise such an influence, and America allied itself with Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Western Europe — and restored relations with China — to prevent Soviet power from menacing North America.

The threat today is China and its One Belt, One Road initiative, which — with or without Russian connivance — proposes to tie Eurasia together under Beijing’s leadership. It’s Mackinder’s nightmare.

Trump calls himself a China hawk, but he doesn’t have the foresight to see how self-defeating his anti-Europe policy is.

Power and legitimacy

The democracies of East Asia and Europe didn’t follow America’s lead during the Cold War because they decided it was the lesser of two evils. They followed America’s lead because they trusted it would not abuse its power and always put America first.

Henry Kissinger, the architect of détente with China, understood — and writes in World Order (2014) — that power needs to be married with legitimacy.

Legitimacy without power is a paper tiger. That is what the EU will be if it doesn’t rearm.

Power without legitimacy is a bully. That’s Trump.

Other democracies have stepped up where America has pulled back. The EU, owing to the size of its common market, has the power to set international standards and is trying to leverage that power to preserve a relatively free international trade regime. Australia and Japan carried on the Trans Pacific Partnership when Trump withdrew from it.

But only America has the wherewithal to defend a liberal world order when pressure and persuasion fail.

Short-term self-interest has already led Germany to build its own natural gas pipeline to Russia; Belgium, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain to sell China sometimes controlling stakes in their ports; and the United Kingdom to give China’s Huawei a role in building its mobile network.

Trump argued against those decisions, but Europe isn’t listening. Why should we?