Friday, Apr 28, 2017

Margaret Thatcher, much mentioned by Theresa May on the eve of meeting Donald Trump, often liked to

Margaret Thatcher, much mentioned by Theresa May on the eve of meeting Donald Trump, often liked to say: “There is no alternative” (Tina, for short). May didn’t use those words this week, but perhaps she should have, for that was the thrust of her message.
The new incarnation of Tina is based on one crude reality: American allies in Europe and elsewhere simply have no other alternative but to rely on US leadership if a rules-based global order is to survive. There is simply nothing at hand to replace or replicate America’s role in upholding key pillars of post-1945 international relations. Nothing, that is, except the vacuum that would only be filled with even more chaos and disruption than is currently the case. Trump is what he is, with flaws and idiosyncrasies well known, but if the US turns its back entirely on the principles of the western solidarity, a Hobbesian, no-holds-barred world emerges. Everyone loses.
Credit where credit is due; May laid out the fact of Tina in clear terms. This will have gone down well in Europe and beyond. Here are the key points she made: there is “nothing inevitable” about an “eclipse of the west”, whose values must be upheld. The European project is vitally important: “It remains overwhelmingly in our interests – and in those of the wider world – that the EU should succeed.” Talks with Russia must be carried out “from a position of strength”. “Engage but beware” of Putin. May said standing up for friends and allies “in tough neighbourhoods” means protecting the Baltic states, just as much as Israel. Interventionism to transform nations, she asserted, is a thing of the past, “but we cannot afford to stand idly by when the threat is real”. Finally, she said that if the US withdraws from essential commitments, hostile or problematic powers will reap the benefits – “When others step up as we step back, it is bad for America, Britain and the world.” Those who would stand to gain are Russia, China and Iran, which is spreading its “malign influence”. This hardly amounted to an embrace of Trump’s worst instincts – of a man who has considered using torture, who has said he couldn’t care less about the EU, has derided Nato, and thinks a bromance might just be possible with Vladimir Putin. Nor is this likely to be an exclusively British message. Angela Merkel and François Hollande were expected to have a telephone conversation with Trump this weekend. In their appeal to Trump, Europeans may well be clutching at straws. But, as I say, this is – in their view – a Tina situation. In the aftermath of Trump’s election, there has been increased talk among some European leaders of building up the continent’s strategic autonomy. But in reality there is no such autonomy to speak of in terms of defence capability. When Merkel declared, one week before Trump’s inauguration, that there is “no guarantee” the US will always be there to protect Europe, she was delivering a wake-up call, not a handy solution.
Tina is the name of the game right now. Norbert Röttgen, an ally of Merkel who heads the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, has said as much: “There is no plan B for European security nor for the fundamental values of our alliance.” Expect two tests to come up soon. The first has to do with US sanctions against Russia over its behaviour in Ukraine. There are signs Trump’s team may be preparing an executive order to lift them. Thwarting this is surely high on Merkel’s agenda, and she has already made clear that a brash US move might open up a transatlantic rift.
The second refers to Iran. Europeans have a strong interest in making sure the nuclear deal holds, and not just because they took part in negotiating it. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t welcome new US pressure being exerted on Iran – something Trump has announced. The reason for this is to be found in Iran’s deep military entrenchment in the Syrian civil war, a situation likely to breed more, not less, Sunni radicalisation and jihadism. Europe is right on the doorstep of the Middle Eastern cauldron and has been severely affected by terrorism and refugee movements. Meanwhile, Russia seems to be seeking to disentangle itself from its military intervention by working towards a ceasefire deal – now that it feels it can set its conditions. But Moscow has started to see Iran’s growing weight in the region as a liability, rather than an asset.
With all this in mind and the fact of Tina, a possible equation emerges in which Europe, Trump and Russia might find some common ground, perhaps a “deal” that wouldn’t shatter transatlantic solidarity. It may be delusional to think Trump will ever be steeped in sophisticated geopolitics. Key European capitals remain horrified by him – but they also noted that his inauguration speech contained the promise to “reinforce old alliances” while seeking “new ones”. Trump may come to realise that new alliances are hard to come by, and that “old” ones do offer advantages. He may come to discover that, in reality and practice if not in rhetoric, he is also in a Tina situation. That must be the hope.

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