And where would that leave the Brexit process?
A weary-sounding Jean-Claude Juncker told students in his home state of Luxembourg last week that “we will need to teach the president-elect [i.e. Donald Trump] what Europe is and how it works”. In doing so, he erred badly, not for the first time. You can hear the derision dripping from the words, as, no doubt can the chief occupant of Trump Tower; not someone known for brushing off condescension. If Juncker is looking to build a relationship, it’s an odd way of going about it. Perhaps he’s miffed that Trump’s favourite European is the one who’s done more to break up the EU than anyone since Greece was let into the Euro.
But the belittling language is not the worst of it. Juncker has made at least two more serious errors of thought. Firstly, that Trump is interested in learning what ‘Europe’ is, and secondly, that he will like what he finds. The signs are that he’s not and he doesn’t, which should lead every European leader to ask searching questions of themselves and of their colleagues.
Trump was clear on the campaign trail about where he sees the main threat to the United States and the global order more generally, from radical Islam. He was also clear that as regards Syria, he was more interested in taking the fight to Daesh than in refereeing the war and awarding penalties against those acting badly.
On both counts, he has an ally in the Kremlin. Trump might well ask why the US is conducting sanctions against Russia over a secondary issue when the Eagle could be usefully working with the Bear on the primary one.
That ties into the question of the future of NATO. It was always designed as an anti-Soviet/Russian alliance and quite clearly still is. But is Russia still the geostrategic enemy for the US that it was in the Cold War? Leaving the short-term issue of Syria aside, isn’t the future challenge more likely to come from China – and isn’t that a potential threat to Russia too?
The question of contributions to NATO is an irritant but not a decisive determinant. It is the fortune of small states that their great power sponsors will back them almost irrespective of their own contributions because they’re needed as allies; it is their fate that their sponsors might turn their backs as their own interests change. Trump has clearly thought rather more coldly about America’s interests than any other president in decades and has determined, not unreasonably, that the world has changed since the 1940s. The likes of Juncker have yet to wake up to the fact that it is not business as normal.
Which has implications for the EU, where Brexit means that it’s also very much not life as normal. The eastern EU states and particularly the Baltic ones will feel vulnerable enough with the potential loss of US support and the prospect of US-Russian cooperation. The loss of one of the EU’s two big military powers combined with several years of internal wrangling are likely to heighten that sense of vulnerability further, in a way that proposals for a paper EU army won’t assuage (not that the UK’s forces are what they were).
But still, therein lies a new opportunity for the UK in the Brexit negotiations. Reaffirming a commitment to NATO and to continental security is not something that need come within the EU ambit at all. The two are, however, likely to go hand in hand: we are talking about almost exactly the same countries, after all. If the mood music can be kept peaceful, with those in the east in particular working to keep all sides talking, Britain ought to be able to get a decent deal. On the other hand, if the process stalls in acrimony and then falls off a cliff as the clock runs out, there’ll undoubtedly be questions about whether Britain shouldn’t follow the US out of any meaningful NATO commitment – and in such circumstances, rightly so.