Money Matters

How Europe should react to Donald Trump

Money Matters
By Philip Stephens
Mon, 05, 18

Enough. America’s allies have gritted their teeth, bitten their lips and fixed their smiles. They have fawned and flattered. To no avail. Donald Trump is what he has always seemed: a nationalist bully set on bending American power to deep personal prejudices. Quitting the Iran nuclear deal is not the pursuit of a foreign policy; rather an act of boastful defiance. The president wants to show the world that he can do as he pleases.

Enough. America’s allies have gritted their teeth, bitten their lips and fixed their smiles. They have fawned and flattered. To no avail. Donald Trump is what he has always seemed: a nationalist bully set on bending American power to deep personal prejudices. Quitting the Iran nuclear deal is not the pursuit of a foreign policy; rather an act of boastful defiance. The president wants to show the world that he can do as he pleases.

This is not the first time Europeans have been confronted with Mr Trump’s disdain for an international order that used to underwrite US global leadership. America First has seen him quit the Paris climate change accord, jettison the idea of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, tear up trade agreements and question the Nato alliance.

Then there are the twitter fusillades accusing Europe of being soft on terrorists or tolerating imaginary no-go areas of Muslim migrants. The allies for the most part have kept their counsel.

The exit from the Iran deal is different. It marks the biggest rupture in transatlantic relations since the end of the cold war and mocks the west’s efforts to uphold a rules-based order. It surrenders the international high ground to a deeply unpleasant regime in Tehran. And it pours petrol on a region already in flames. A region, incidentally, that sits alongside Europe.

Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu have been banging the drums for war against Iran. Mr Trump in effect has now joined them. The deal restricting Iran’s nuclear activities was imperfect. Without it, Tehran has means and incentive to build a bomb.

For European policymakers there is an additional dimension. If Iran, or any other unpleasant regime, had needed a rationale for a nuclear programme, former president George W Bush offered it with his Axis of Evil speech and the US-led invasion of Iraq. North Korea is unlikely to unlearn this lesson when its leader Kim Jong Un meets Mr Trump next month to talk about Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal.

A diplomatic path for Iran was initially mapped by France, Germany and Britain — the so-called EU3. The 2015 accord, drawing in China and Russia as well as the US, was the culmination of a dozen years of painstaking and often painful diplomacy. North Korea, and everyone else, now know that America’s word, even on a solemn international agreement, cannot be trusted as long as Mr Trump is in the White House.

In most European capitals, the first reaction to this wrecking strategy is to say America is now on its own. If the US intends to act as a rogue state, blind to the views of its allies, there is no longer the glue left to hold together an Atlantic partnership that long assumed a coincidence of values as well as interests.

Turning off the TV set on Mr Trump is a more than beguiling prospect. Sadly, it also defies the reality that Europe depends on the US for the continent’s defence. Last year, in a moment of public frustration, Germany’s Angela Merkel said that Mr Trump’s arrival in the White House invited Europe to take more responsibility for its affairs. Everything the chancellor has done since suggests that Germany is less rather than more willing to shoulder the costs of its own security. Europe will secure independence from the US when it is prepared to pay the price.

Realism, though, does not require submission. The first priority must be to hold together what is left of the nuclear agreement. The US may have reneged, but Europe — and the rest of the international community — can demonstrate that they are prepared to keep the bargain with Iran — the lifting of sanctions in return for nuclear compliance.

European politicians have said they will seek an exemption for their companies from Mr Trump’s sanctions. They may need to go further. If the president insists on deploying US economic might to punish, say, German, French or British companies, Europe must retaliate. This is not about defending commercial interests, but about recognising that Iran will respect the deal only if gets promised sanctions relief.

In the absence of exemptions, the EU should indemnify against the threat of US sanctions any of its businesses trading with Iran. The attempt to penalise European companies should be met also with offsetting penalties on US corporations. There would be a danger of tit-for-tat escalation, but if Europe is serious it will have to take risks.

The second imperative is for European leaders to make it as clear as it is possible to make it that they would oppose vigorously any military strikes against Iran, and that the US would be debarred from using European bases in such a conflict. The Tehran regime is obnoxious. Its interventions in the region are destabilising. But the war sought by Israel and Saudi Arabia would be still more dangerous.

Europeans should not draw comfort from the fact that Mr Trump’s decision has left them sitting in the same camp as China and Russia — though some may recall that at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956 Washington lined up with Moscow formally to denounce Britain and France at the United Nations. There must, though, be food for serious thought here for Mr Trump’s fellow Republicans in Washington. How has the US managed so comprehensively to isolate itself among friends and allies and thus empower its adversaries? Enough really is enough.