Four top ranking Washington bigwigs – who flew to Munich, Brussels and Bonn to mend fences with Europe, after Donald Trump termed NATO ‘obsolete’ and rejoiced the unraveling of the EU, left the Europeans bewildered with the dangerously diverging stories they had to narrate. Only the extreme right wing, Polish Defense Minister Anton Macierewicz seemed convinced by the most senior Trump government members, despite the fact that it will be his own country to pay the dearest price, if the White House and the Kremlin decide to cooperate in Ukraine and Syria.
The other Europeans were left wondering if these top American dignitaries and their White House boss even had a rough plan, about the US strategic vision about Europe and beyond. The shocking truth is that amongst most Europeans, a dangerous feeling reigned after the visit, of not being convinced even regarding the very basic intentions of the White House.
White House in disarray
US Vice President Mike Pence, the powerful Republican senator John McCaine, State Secretary Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis all had a different narratives to offer, about the future relations between Europe and the US. They all attended the 53rd Munich Security Conference, at the exception of Tillerson who landed in Bonne for the G20 foreign ministers gathering.
McCaine, a top ranking Republican lawmaker but critical of Trump, straightforwardly said that the new administration is “in disarray”. Last Friday, this was his central message at his opening speech at the Munich Conference. Later on, McCaine, commenting on the latest indiscriminate Trump attack on the Press, said that “dictators start from suppressing the Press”. Understandably, an American administration without a clear vision of the world and the US itself, may become very dangerous.
A messenger Vice President?
On the same occasion, VP Pence told his European audience that he brings the reassurances of President Trump about the “Transatlantic alliance”. None was convinced though, because everybody knows that the EU – US ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’ is practically dead. On many occasions Trump has shot to kill it, because “it’s not good for the American people”. Pence did injustice to himself and the status of his office by mentioning the name of his boss 19 times in a 20 minutes speech and also by offering ‘greetings’ from the President to anybody in the room, as if he were just the chief’s courier.
Undoubtedly, after the four Americans left Europe, the Europeans remained worried about Trump’s clearly expressed wish for a close rapprochement with Russia. More than once, the US President has spoken positively about the Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Europeans however cannot forget the deceitful way with which Russia occupied and then annexed Crimea, the Ukrainian strategic peninsula in Black Sea. Unfortunately, then, on the crucial issue of the US stance vis-à-vis Russia’s aggressiveness, Tillerson and Mattis made widely contradicting statements.
The State Secretary said that he “may consider working with Russia”. In this way, Tillerson appeared positively disposed ahead of his meeting with the Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, which took place in Bonn last week. According to a Reuters report, a US official said that during his meeting with Lavrov, Tillerson was looking for “pragmatic and constructive cooperation in areas where our interests overlap”. “The obvious ones which have been discussed many times are counter-ISIS and counterterrorism would be areas that the Secretary would hope to develop some possible avenues for cooperation,” the official also said. On the contrary, Mattis speaking at last week’s NATO Convention in Brussels, said that the US is not considering collaboration with Moscow. Evidently ‘counterterrorism’ and ‘counter-ISIS’ actions are of fundamentally military character and Mattis should have known what Tillerson was supposed to discuss those issues with Lavrov. Obviously, he didn’t.
From the European side, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel felt obliged to apologize to the US, about the devalued euro in relation to the dollar. Trump has repeatedly accused Eurozone and more so Germany, of having grossly devalued the common European currency, aiming at “stealing jobs from the Americans”. As a matter of fact, this is partly true. Last year Germany achieved a historical record in foreign trade surplus, due to a much cheaper euro. That’s why last Friday Merkel rushed to recognize that there is a real problem with the undervalued euro. At the Munich Conference, with the Americans watching, she stressed that this is not the outcome of Germany’s proper economic policy measures. Merkel went on and explained that this is the result of the extraordinary monetary policy measures and the very low interest rates of the independent European Central Bank.
She continued elaborating, that the ECB is conducting its quantitatively super-eased and low interest rate monetary policy, with an eye at the weakest euro area economies. In this respect, the cheap euro and the very low interest rates are meant to support the exports and suppress the cost (low interest rate) of refinancing the debt of Portugal, Spain, Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia. If Germany had as her national currency the old D-mark, the money’s parity with the dollar would have been much higher. But it’s not. As a result, Germany’s exporters unintentionally profit from an unwarranted very cheap euro. At the same time though, Germany loses a lot from the lower dollar value of her euro reserves, which have been accumulated over the years from a widely positive trade surplus.
It’s ECB’s fault: Merkel
It’s equally true that ECB’s low rates policy has deprived Germany from any interest gains on her savings. So, Merkel concluded that Berlin has neither the authority nor the influence to change this expansionist and zero interest rate monetary policy of the independent ECB, which caters for the whole of the Eurozone and not exclusively for Germany. In short she pointed to the direction of Mario Draghi, telling the Americas that he must be the target of their criticism. All that was actually a ‘de profundis’, and from a certain angle a self-humiliating presentation by the German Chancellor, of the internal Eurozone policy stalemates, for the Americans to grasp.
From the French side however, the comments were not apologetic, but rather aggressive against the Americans. The French Foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault appeared belligerent towards what Pence had said, and observed that the American Vice President didn’t mention not once the name of the European Union. It must be underlined also that Pence’s direct and imperative demand for a greater European financial contribution in NATO, was received in the room with a deafening silence. It was plain that Pence had received particularly strong instructions from Trump about the NATO money. Judging from an ‘a contrario’ side, Trump hadn’t taken the pain to give Pence equally clear instructions on the other issues, which are of prime interest for the Europeans.
At the end of the day, there was no doubt that the four Americans who came to mend fences with Europe, created more questions than the answers they delivered. They rather confirmed the ideas the Europeans had about the Trump administration; disrespectful for the EU, vying for economic protectionism and being strategically flippant in confronting the Russian assertiveness.