Looking for friends: Donald Trump attends a panel discussion during the G20 summit. Photo: UKAS MICHAEL/POOL/GETTY IMAGES

A five-point plan for tackling Trump

He is no ordinary President. Europe shouldn’t treat him like one
August 11, 2017

Europe has a severe Donald Trump problem. This became plain when he arrived at July’s G20 summit in Hamburg like a bully in a china shop, ready to shatter the western order. He rumbled around, but this time the bull strengthened rather than shattered China. For the nation that leads the free world is now itself led by a man who disdains the free world’s values. That leaves China and Russia to pick up the fragments—and Europe trying to make sense of a dark new reality. And that’s before it begins to contemplate the potentially devastating nuclear brinkmanship the President is indulging in with North Korea.

It is no secret that Trump has already done more to alienate Europe than Vladimir Putin’s boldest fantasy would allow. Confidence in the leadership of the US is down by 75 per cent in Germany, 70 per cent in France and 57 per cent in the UK.

Here’s the real problem: Trump might not be President of the United States in seven months, yet he could equally be president for seven more years. It is getting easier to imagine the Russia scandal destroying him, but there is still a viable path to re-election. With the Twitter president, three hours sometimes seems like a lifetime; it’s over three years before he’s back on the ballot. The question, then, is what should Europe do to respond to a man who poses such a threat to the liberal western order?

It’s important to be clear about the disjunction between Trump and most of Europe. The simplest divide is a stark reality: Trump doesn’t much like Europe. He finds its bureaucracy cumbersome, its social safety nets a sure sign of weakness, and its old cultures too namby-pamby; he prefers new gold and glitz. More substantively, he thinks that the Europeans have long been free-riding on the Americans. This is most visible in his berating of Nato allies for not paying their dues, but it also crops up in trade, climate, or anything else where there might be a “deal.”

Trump sees no possibility of countries collaborating on values rather than competing, and so sees America’s interactions with Europe as a series of bad deals. And when it comes to the values, in just six months, he has congratulated Turkey’s president for a rigged referendum that destroyed the last shreds of the country’s democracy, praised President Rodrigo Duterte’s death squads in the Philippines, and put Poland on a pedestal despite its unsavoury regime sliding away from liberal democracy. Through it all Trump values the perception of strength above resilient democracy. He has repeatedly pushed against the European Union itself—applauding Brexit, attacking its chief stateswoman, Angela Merkel, and rooting for Marine Le Pen in the French elections. To Trump, multilateralism is a filthy idea; for the survival of the EU, it’s the gospel.

Europe finds itself in a vice. To the west, it looks at the bizarre behaviour of a president who is retreating from the US’s role as a guarantor of its freedoms and feels a need to distance itself. But to the east, it sees Russia and China, eager to push into the vacuum that this is opening up. Europe’s leaders need to make a drastic shift—and quickly—toward a strategic resilience plan that can thrive with or without Trump’s America.

First, Europe must strengthen its military might. Trump was wrong to try to bully US allies with such braggadocio, but he was right that some countries are not shouldering the appropriate burden. Boosting budgets will generate goodwill with Trump—and, love him or hate him, superpower approval counts for a lot. At the same time, it will enable Europe to act alone if he completely abdicates leadership.

Second, flatter Trump on anything that doesn’t matter. Emmanuel Macron gave a masterclass on his recent Paris trip. Yes, fawning pageantry is embarrassing. But it’s also smart. Trump is nice to people who are nice to him. He is like a wide-eyed, adoring kid at military parades. Of course, this is a horrifying trait for serious foreign policy. But it’s also reality. Buy some goodwill by bowing to his vanity without caving to him on values.

Third, build alliances in Congress. Thankfully, there is more to the US than Trump. For decades, European diplomats have emphasised co-operation with White House officials over powerful committees on Capitol Hill. But Congress matters. It is far more pro-European than Trump, and has the power to derail some of his most destructive foreign policy moves.

Fourth, don’t take Trump at his word. He told Theresa May that the Britain/US trade deal would be signed “very, very quickly.” But, despite Trump’s comments, this deal is not a US priority. At home, the number of plans and bills he’s promised to deliver “in two weeks” is astonishing. They never materialise. His pledges abroad will prove just as shaky, so don’t be duped.

Instead, finally, plan for a post-Trump America. Right now, he is embattled. No other president has been this unpopular this fast. You could be dealing with a President Mike Pence before then. Be prepared.

The world needs America and Europe to reunite against illiberal autocracy in Beijing, Moscow and elsewhere. Let’s hope that unity will be possible again before long. In the meantime, take comfort from the words of Barack Obama that this is just a “temporary absence” of American leadership, not a permanent abdication. But have a backup plan ready, just in case he’s wrong.