Alex Deane is a partner at a City consultancy and a former Conservative Party aide.
With minds focused on Brexit and coronavirus, thoughts in the UK understandably seem to have turned away somewhat from political events in the USA after their Presidential election in November. But I still thought it worth reflecting on a couple of likely important points of difference between outgoing and incoming administrations from an international observer’s perspective.
Donald Trump’s political outlook has seen a number of divergent viewpoints taken over the years, but he has been wholly consistent on two significant points.
First, he has consistently favoured protectionism. On this, I think that he is wrong, albeit perhaps wrong for good reasons.
Second, he has consistently criticised NATO allies over “burden sharing” – a polite euphemism for “Europeans don’t spend enough on defence.” On this, I think that he is right, albeit perhaps right for bad reasons.
Trump’s protectionism has been motivated by a heartfelt desire to support American producers, and a genuine sense that others weren’t competing fairly anyway, a point which may well have some validity. But protectionism and trade wars are bad for international commerce, and bad for consumers. Especially at a time in which the UK seeks to forge new alliances around the world, negotiating trade deals on our own behalf, a White House that favours free trade over protectionism is devoutly to be wished.
The defence point requires a little more unpacking. Former Trump administration officials such as John Bolton have gone so far as to speculate that, in a second Trump term, the USA would have left NATO. This would have been bad for western democracy and global stability. Joe Biden is perhaps the person most committed to US / European defence and the NATO alliance to ascend to the Presidency since Bush 41: he will not pursue such a path.
But beyond that fundamental issue over commitment to the alliance, what about the questions that President-elect Biden will inherit?
The Greeks said that everyone knows the right thing to do, but only the Spartans do it – when it comes to defence spending, delete “Spartans”, insert “Americans”. Trump may have expressed his case in terms that we would not use ourselves, but he is undoubtedly right that European powers have spent insufficiently on defence over past decades, focusing on economic issues and improving domestic performance whilst leaving the Americans to take up the overwhelming majority of defence commitments – biting the hand that freed us, indeed.
Changing the tone on this issue is inevitable and understandable, but it shouldn’t mean changing the basic concern – or the importance given to it by the new administration. Europeans are likely to want to see a change in the two per cent of GDP defence spending requirement in favour of a more nebulous / impossible to fail test about “broader contributions.”
The Biden administration will want to look and feel different to its predecessor but, on this issue, it should resist being lured into “compromise”. Indeed, the fact that on this issue Trump was – in his own way – reflecting the consistent position of his predecessors should be borne in mind.
Some in American politics thought that Germany (and Japan) benefited from the Cold War, resenting their economic success at the expense of America – a view that has been ascribed to Trump. This is one of the Larkinesque “wrong beginnings” that gave force to Trump’s criticism of NATO spending issues – but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about it.
There are some second order issues that spring from the Trump outlook on which the Biden administration will be tempted to reverse course – to be “nicer” to important allies and to demonstrate difference, such as the planned drawdown of US troops from Germany.
But it’s difficult in the 2020s to see the strategic case for such significant American presence on the ground in Europe’s economic powerhouse. Trump’s decision to reallocate military forces may have been motivated by a desire to stick it to the underspending Germans, but it was still right, a decision that was if anything overdue, rather than one to be reversed by Biden when he takes office.
There will be other defence points to consider of course, but that’s my starter for ten. I welcome your thoughts and will respond in the comments.