In his speech on 16 February 2019 at the Munich Security Conference – which is to international strategic issues what the Davos forum is to international economic issues – the Vice President of the United States said that his country was stronger than ever, and was still the leader of the free world. In a phenomenon without precedent – the Western Europeans in the room failed to applaud.
Two days earlier, in Warsaw, at a summit to bring Israel closer to three Gulf petro-monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates) in the name of their common hatred of Iran, Mike Pence had used a paternalistic tone to address France, Britain and Germany.
They were absent from the conference but nevertheless they are traditional American allies. The Vice President had not only asked these three democracies, America’s main defence partners of the “free world” for 70 years, to throw away an international agreement duly signed and sanctified by a Security Council resolution (the nuclear agreement with Iran of July 2015); he had also demanded that they stop trading with Tehran.
The three largest European powers rebelled against the US diktat.
They note that Iran is fully complying with its denuclearisation obligations. They do not see the interest they would have in pushing Iran to despair and to acquire a nuclear bomb.
They want the Middle East to return to a minimum of stability. And they sadly note that Washington is doing nothing about it. They fear that more disorder is created by the two contradictory obsessions that shake Donald Trump before the end of his first mandate: to bring down the regime in power in Tehran; and to withdraw as soon as possible the US special forces operating in Kurdish territory in northern Syria.
The European powers could have forgiven this awkwardness of the American strategy, but certainly not the condescending blackmail that has been added to it.
Trump urged France, Britain and Germany to take back to their homelands as quickly as possible the jihadists who claimed responsibility after being taken prisoner by the Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, US allies in their war against ISIS. Otherwise, he said, he would release them into the wild.
If the American president had wanted to show the Europeans that he was making a mockery of the fact that massacres of Islamic terror are taking place at home again, he could not have done better.
Because of the 800 jihadists who aspire to return to European territory, how many will try to orchestrate an attack? Where and when did the state programmes of Islamic de-radicalisation ever work?
France and Germany hated the neo-conservatism of the Bush 43 team (43rd President of the United States). To pretend to impose democracy by force seemed to them an illusion. Paris and Berlin waited for America to restore a minimum of order in the Iraq it had invaded in 2003.
But, impatient, the US withdrew militarily in 2010 – only to have to return in 2014. France and Germany today appreciate Trump’s realism and his absolute mistrust of “humanitarian” external operations. But they cannot accept that the American president refuses to assume the consequences of his country’s past actions. They call it irresponsibility.
Merkel and Macron are not mistaken about Trump: they know he is determined to apply a crude strategy in foreign policy that will bring him re-election. They understand his priority to defend the American worker against the invasion of Chinese products. But they demand a minimal dose of coherence and multilateralism.
Why sabotage the Auckland trans-pacific treaty? Why refuse to understand that, when it comes to protecting intellectual property and fair trade rules, the interests of the United States, Europe and Japan are aligned? Why always favour the bilateral in the dialogue with Beijing? Why look for legitmising the application of American law to the world?
In the society of states, as in the society of men, leadership requires some minimal of consideration for one’s neighbour, which Trump does not have. Given the current political weakness of the leaders of the three great European powers, the big winner from this decline in US international influence will obviously be China …