That can’t happen.’ We heard it before the Brexit vote. We heard it before the American election.
And now, once again, prepare for many to close their eyes and refuse to see what impact the Trump presidency may have on Nato, on Europe and on Britain’s hollow ‘special relationship’ with America.
Many things we have long taken for granted – stability on the Continent, transatlantic trade – may end. But no one will want to admit it.
A BBC journalist looked startled a couple of days ago when I told him Britain should start negotiating a new defence treaty with Europe, since the Nato security guarantee may become less credible.
‘But that’s impossible!’
Once again, prepare for many to close their eyes and refuse to see what impact the Trump presidency may have on Nato, on Europe and on Britain’s hollow ‘special relationship’ with America
An American friend, over the telephone, was also in denial. After telling me that Trump is ‘quite right’ to call for Nato members to spend more money on their military, he stopped talking when I pointed out that Trump had gone rather farther than that. ‘Impossible,’ he said. ‘Impossible to imagine that America would not defend its allies!’
Impossible? Unimaginable? It can’t happen?
Listen to what Trump has been saying, not just in the past two years but over the past two decades. As far back as 2000, Trump (or his ghostwriter) declared in a book that European conflicts ‘are not worth American lives. Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually.’ Last July, he suggested he would think twice about defending any Nato member who was attacked – something that the Nato treaty implies America should do.
Instead, his response would depend on whether the country attacked had ‘fulfilled their obligations to us’, whatever that means. In the only foreign policy speech he gave during the entire campaign, Trump deliberately used the expression ‘America first’ – a slogan famously used by American isolationists who wanted to keep the US out of the Second World War and which may now calamitously signify ‘Britain alone’ as far as the new administration is concerned.
For almost as long, Trump has declared that his preferred European leader is not Angela Merkel or Theresa May – whose name I doubt he had heard before this week – but Vladimir Putin.
‘You can make deals with those people,’ he said of Russia. ‘I would have a great relationship with Putin.’ In 2014, he praised the Russian leader’s invasion of Crimea. Already, he says, he has received a ‘beautiful’ letter from Putin, so a much different kind of ‘special relationship’ is already off to a flying start. Of course Trump will continue to make the pro-forma calls to ‘world leaders’ because his staff will tell him he has to. He’ll send his vice-president, Mike Pence, to shake hands with Boris Johnson and others.
But Trump prefers dictators to democrats. He isn’t bothered about the sanctity of borders or the rule of law. He doesn’t have any sentimental attachment to Europe or to Britain. The only British politician he knows is Nigel Farage.
As the documentary director Michael Moore put it: ‘You’re not irrelevant to him because you are the inventors of the game of golf, so he has a special place in his heart for you. He looks at Britain as one giant golf course.’
I doubt Trump has ever heard the term ‘special relationship’, except perhaps in conversations about somebody’s mistress.
But the real problem is not that Trump is uninterested in America’s allies. The problem is that, if it is left up to him, he will be incapable of sustaining any alliances. Both military and economic unions require not the skills of a shady property magnate and professional conman who ‘makes deals’, but boring negotiations, unsatisfying compromises and, sometimes, the sacrifice of one’s own national preferences for the greater good. All of those things were already difficult to explain and justify to a public brought up on reality TV and the instant gratification of internet shopping.
For almost as long, Trump has declared that his preferred European leader is not Angela Merkel or Theresa May – whose name I doubt he had heard before this week – but Vladimir Putin
Now that we have a reality TV star as American president, we have to assume no one will bother with them at all. What does that mean in practice? Remember that Nato is built around the philosophy of deterrence. It works only as long as the alliance’s enemies are afraid of it.
Even by hinting that he would think twice before defending an ally, Trump has already undermined the alliance’s value.
It may be a matter of time before the alliance is tested. The breaking point might may be a ‘hybrid’ invasion of one of the Baltic states.
Perhaps some members of the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia or Estonia will pick a fight and then call for assistance.
Russian ‘patriotic activists’ will cross the border – and then what? Will Nato fight back? Will Trump’s America come to the aid of a small, poor ally?
Perhaps the threat will be made to Sweden, which has been subjected to odd forms of Russian intimidation over the past year. Submarines and military aircraft regularly buzz the Swedish coast; verbal threats are frequent. What if one of those threats becomes real? Sweden is not a member of Nato – so will Trump’s America defend Swedes if they are attacked?
They are a democracy, and a major trading partner. But they don’t contribute any money at all to Nato. By Trump’s reckoning, they are not worthy of aid.
Of course Estonia, and even Sweden, seem here in Britain like faraway countries of which we know little.
But in the week of Remembrance Day, it is foolish to imagine that Britain could ever stay aloof from a continental struggle.
And even if Britain could stay out of direct involvement, all of the arguments we are having now about tariffs and trade will seem pretty pointless if Europe is engulfed in conflict and half of our export market collapses.
Of course there are many ways for Russia to influence Europe and the UK that have nothing to do with Nato at all.
Last summer, Russian cyberhackers stole material from Hillary Clinton’s staff and passed it to Wikileaks, which chose particularly damaging moments to publish it. Much of the material was anodyne, but that didn’t matter: The effect was to make Clinton and her staff seem ‘corrupt’, even though the equivalent email stolen from the Republican campaign would have been no different.
Had Clinton won, we would now see a major crackdown on Russian hacking. Nato, though slow off the mark, had already begun discussing how to deal with this new form of threat. So had the British Army. Instead, we have an American administration which has no incentive to investigate Russian hacking and no interest in stopping it. During the campaign, Trump actually called on Russian intelligence to hack Clinton even more.
Russia will take note of this success – and try it elsewhere.
A few days ago, Merkel spoke of Russian interference in the coming German election, saying: ‘We are already, even now, having to deal with information out of Russia, or with internet attacks that are of Russian origin or with news which sows false information.’
The same methods will be tried here too. During the last UK General Election, GCHQ learned that the Russian hackers – ‘Fancy Bear’, the same group which is active in the US – planned to target every Whitehall server, as well as every major broadcaster.
The Home Office, Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, as well as the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky were all threatened. Sadly, the days when we could count on American intelligence to push back against those kinds of threats may be drawing to a rapid close.
But Trump prefers dictators to democrats. He isn’t bothered about the sanctity of borders or the rule of law. He doesn’t have any sentimental attachment to Europe or to Britain. The only British politician he knows is Nigel Farage
But then, the days when we could count on US support for British ideas about free trade may be ending just as quickly.Trump won in part by promising protectionism, a trade war with China and the construction of a giant wall along the Mexican border. He has attacked the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico and he has hinted that the US should pull out of the World Trade Organization too.
He won’t keep all of his promises. His ally Newt Gingrich admitted yesterday that Mexico will not pay for the wall, as Trump promised. ‘It was a great campaign device,’ he said.
But the underlying sentiments remain. President Obama has effectively given up on the US-Pacific and US-European trade agreements which his administration negotiated.
Neither the next Congress nor the next president is likely to pursue them either. During the Brexit campaign, Obama told the British that they would be ‘at the back of the queue’ for a trade agreement with Washington. Now it looks like there may be no queue at all.
The US government will have other priorities: building (and paying for) that wall with Mexico, cracking down on illegal immigration (whatever that means) and passing out subsidies, because at the end of the day that’s what populists always do.
For all of these reasons, this American election marks a turning point for Britain.
Some are already arguing that the superficial similarities between the Brexit and Trump campaigns – the nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiment, the contempt for ‘elites’ – augur well for the future. It’s even possible that Trump, or whoever winds up working for him, will push that line.
But while Britain must maintain a close relationship with the US, nobody should be under any illusions. If the US is run by a transactional president who seeks payoffs and deals rather than long-term relationships, then the UK can no longer assume that America’s interests, whether in Europe, Russia, the Middle East or Asia, will always line up with its own.
However unorthodox the idea of European defence may seem to Britain’s military establishment and to the Brexiteers, however angry we may get with the Brussels negotiators or French bureaucrats, it is time to take seriously the idea of a new European security pact, or at least a European security agreement which can reinforce Nato guarantees.
Britain should argue for it, Britain should plan for it – and Britain should lead it. If not, we risk isolation.
We need an insurance policy now, not only against Russian or jihadi threats, but against the capriciousness of our oldest ally and friend.