What do China and Germany have in common? For decades, both have been beneficiaries of American largesse, which Donald Trump is now trying to end in the most uncouth way. Start with China. The goodies began to roll in under Richard Nixon. He thought that the “opening to China” would alienate Beijing from Moscow, inducting the giant into America’s orbit during the Vietnam War. So he promoted China to superpower status in the multipolar world-to-come. As we know, flattery plus a seat at the table of the heavyweights did not turn the trick. By 1975, the North had conquered the South.
Nixon’s successors tried another gambit. They thought they could “socialize” China by flinging U.S. markets wide open, hoping that a rich and respected China would join the American-made world. China took the perks—the markets and the intellectual property—and chose the road rising powers always take. Today, China is America’s most dangerous strategic rival. Xi Jinping is signaling Washington: “The Pacific is our lake, roll over—at least as far as Guam.”
The trade deficit with China has risen to $420 billion, the world’s largest, and Donald Trump is escalating the trade war. If he makes true on his most recent threat, almost all of Chinese exports will suffer punitive duties after September 1. Alas, it’s tit-for-tat and not a given that Beijing will blink first—or yield before both will have inflicted irreparable damage on the global economy.
So much for America’s worst strategic rival. Though Germany is an ally of 70 years, the structural issues across the Atlantic are comparable. And not to put too fine a point on it, Europe’s richest and largest nation has essentially outsourced its security to America since WWII, with the U.S. stationing nukes and troops as a mighty deterrent against Moscow. Last year, the Germans devoted 1.23 percent of GDP to defense—as much as Albania. It is now up to 1.36, same as that great power, Denmark. Europe as a whole has actually increased defense outlays in recent years. But the rate of growth will actually shrink as of 2020 for NATO-Europe as a whole.
Enters Trump’s point man in Berlin, Ambassador Richard Grenell. He told the German news agency DPA: “It is offensive to assume that the U.S. taxpayers continue to pay for more than 50,000 Americans in Germany, but the Germans get to spend their [budget] surplus on domestic programs.”
The talk in Berlin now is that the U.S. might pull all the GI’s out and station forces in Poland instead. The Polish ambassador to Germany has issued a hearty welcome. Mr. Grenell presumably counts both soldiers, rotational troops and civilians; actual U.S. troops in Germany are around 35,000. But a couple of permanent brigades more or less do not change the basic point, which is that Germany and Europe cannot take care of their own security in an age of Russian and Iranian expansionism, just to list two obvious vulnerabilities.
Britain, which once ruled the waves, could not deter the seizure of a UK-flagged tanker in the Straits of Hormuz. It has dispatched two warships to the Gulf. London’s then-foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt condemned the grab as “piracy,” yet stressed London’s wish to “de-escalate the situation.” The reason was obvious, with Britain’s then-defense secretary conceding that it is “impossible to escort each individual vessel.” In August, the UK joined the U.S.-led naval mission in the Gulf—a realistic move for the nation than once boasted the mightiest fleet in the world. Today it has 22 major surface combatants. At the outbreak of WWII, it had around 300.
As goes Britain, so goes the rest. The French are down to 24. Last year all of Germany’s six U-boats were inoperative. Out of 244 panzers, only 99 were combat-ready. All Tiger combat helicopters are currently grounded. Useable projection forces are around 10,000 (plus another 20,000 in training and rotation). This is what 25 years of cashing in post-Cold War peace dividends have wrought.
With his incessant threats and insults to the Europeans—and the Germans above all—Donald Trump seems to posture like a capo of a protection racket: “Pay up, or we pull out!” This is no way to treat America’s longest-lived alliance. But there are three general points to ponder as we enlarge the framework to bring in China.
First, American largesse has only marginally lowered China’s market barriers and its theft of U.S. intellectual property. If they are not carried out, threats are discounted and ignored. Thus decades of American entreaties directed to Germany/Europe have not boosted defense expenditures. China has basically stuck to an exploitative trade policy. Kids know this game: please your parents just enough to keep them from grounding you, let alone sending you to reform school.
Second, free-riding is irresistible, shifting resources into self-serving pursuits. America’s generosity has helped to increase China’s wealth by orders of magnitude, but previous administrations should have hearkened history instead of hope. Ambitious nations get rich, then rowdy. Beijing is now the greatest threat to American primacy. As long as Europe was safe under the American umbrella, it could oppose U.S. interests at various points. Even now, France and Germany will not join the American naval posse in the Gulf. Stay out of harm’s way and don’t provoke Tehran, seems to be the impetus.
Third, a lifetime of security at a steep discount has tempted Germany/Europe to ignore its own best interests. Never mind Trump’s insufferable hauteur. Germany is Number 1 in the EU, and the bloc is the world’s largest exporter. Freedom of navigation should be a primary goal, especially in the Gulf, the most critical conduit of global oil supplies. So for Europe to deter Iran is not to kowtow to Trump; it is indispensable realpolitik.
To keep Vladimir Putin’s grasping hands off Eastern Europe is another vital interest. NATO-Europe is neither willing nor able to impress the new tsar with the right mix of resources and resolve. Turkey is de facto no longer a member, and in Germany, voices on the Left sound quite pleased with Trump’s withdrawal threats. So let him go and take his nukes (about 200) with him, runs the counsel. In truth, it would exchange “our” tyrant (Trump) for the one in the Kremlin. Historically, this is known as “appeasement”—or more politely, as “propitiation.”
“Stupid is as stupid does,” taught Forrest Gump. But such folly does not excuse Donald Trump. It is a permanent American interest to keep its great-power rivals out of Europe, and especially its linchpin Germany. On a practical level, think Ramstein, America’s air force hub in Germany whence it can sally forth into critical neighborhoods east and south, as it has done during various Middle East wars. Without Ramstein’s vast surveillance capacities, the USAF would be struck deaf and blind from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of Africa.
The larger point is about the use of threats and trade war. True, unexecuted threats lose credibility. But real threats spin out of control when met by retaliation. Trump thinks that brutality pays because the U.S. supposedly retains escalation dominance. Even when he riles most of the rest, friends as well as foes? The odds are that he will tear the fabric of world order, both the political and the economic part, and so damage American authority as well as its interests.
What’s the use of threatening another round of tariffs on China when the stock market drops 500 points each time? When American farmers, workers and are victimized by retaliation and consumers lose real income as a result of riising prices for imported goods? The toll is high, and yet the trade deficit doesn’t decline because imports from Vietnam et al. substitute for Made in China stuff. Direct investment and joint venture deals between China and the U.S. have shrunk to their lowest level in five years, the economist Irwin Stelzer reports in these pages. When Trump keeps dissing and intimidating big players like Germany, he delivers ammunition to the country’s anti-American forces that are by no means concentrated on the Left only.
If you try to impose your will by exploiting the “Madman Theory” (do my bidding, or I am going to hurt myself), you have to be sure that your adversary stays sane. But what if he—individual or nation—is also ready to go off the deep end? At best, it produces a standoff, at worst an escalation of irrationality that maximizes losses all-round.
Good luck, Mr. President.
[This essay has been updated.]