The recent stormy meetings at the G7 summit and NATO conference have laid bare the growing tensions in world relations. This was most explicitly seen between the leader of the ‘free world’, Donald Trump and the de facto leader of the European Union, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Donald Trump’s first visit to Europe was awkward. Its aftermath has been explosive,” commented the Financial Times, a major mouthpiece of finance capital.
Speaking at a German election rally, shortly after the US president had returned to Washington, Angela Merkel came close to announcing the death of the Western alliance.
The German Chancellor warned that: “The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days. We Europeans must really take our destiny in our own hands. Of course we need to have friendly relations with the US and with the UK and with other neighbours, including Russia. But we have to fight for our own future ourselves.”
As tempers rose, Trump tweeted his anger with the threat. “We have a massive trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay far less than they should on NATO & military,” the American President fumed. “Very bad for US. This will change.”
With friends like these...
There is a feeling among a section of American capitalists that the US is suffering unduly while Germany is growing at their expense.
Even before the G7 meetings had taken place, Trump’s administration came out in an open attack against their German ‘friends’. Trump’s top economic adviser acknowledged that Germany is “very bad”, for example, when it comes to flooding the US with cars. Trump went further and said, “Look at the millions of cars that they sell in the United States. Terrible. We’re going to stop that.”
Car manufacturing in the US has been closely tied, economically and psychologically, with the growth of the US as a world superpower. Fordism even entered the 20th century lexicon to describe modern mechanised manufacturing methods as pioneered by Henry Ford in the car industry. However, in 2010 Germany produced twice as many cars as the US. A lack of investment in US manufacturing and the offshoring of jobs - to ensure that profits are maintained and increased - have played key roles in the relative decline of US manufacturing.
Merkel and her administration tried to rebuke the Trump team’s comments, stating, “To single out one country for attack is, I think, not so appropriate. A surplus is neither good nor evil - it’s the result of supply and demand.”
Merkel’s latest remarks, while uncharacteristically blunt, nevertheless are a reflection of the new reality. They will add to the souring of relations and present new divisions and conflicts. It is an extremely serious situation for the already unstable geopolitical equilibrium.
This open clash between Trump and Merkel can be regarded as a turning point in international relations. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in the US, tweeted: “Merkel saying Europe cannot rely on others and needs to take matters into its own hands is a watershed. [This is] what [the] US has sought to avoid since World War 2.” Meanwhile François Heisbourg, at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, stated, “President Trump has signalled pretty clearly the end of 65 years of international relations based on strong, long-lasting mutual trust.”
These comments from Merkel also reflect a growing feeling within the German leadership that the EU must be more strongly integrated, especially in the wake of Brexit. Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, recently said that Germany’s priority must be “to keep the rest of Europe — without the UK — as close together as possible.”
What we have seen during these summits, and in the aftermath, are the growing contradictions in the world economy being expressed on the political front. Briefings, political sniping and backroom comments are common in ‘normal’ political times, yet the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis and the election of Trump, with his more strident “America First” policies, have brought the leading representatives of the EU and US into direct open conflict. This is unprecedented in modern times.
The US currently shoulders the lion’s share of NATO’s defence spending, at 75% of the total cost. This irritates the Americans, who regard the Europeans as free-loaders. Not surprisingly, Trump scolded the other members of NATO like little children - specifically France and Germany, neither of which meet the commitment of spending 2% GDP on defence - for “chronic underfunding” of the organisation. Trump sees this as the US subsidising Europe’s defence spending, protesting that this is “not fair to the people and taxpayers of the US”.
Since the founding of NATO - an imperialist military alliance - the US have always subsidised their European partners in terms of ‘defence’. Nothing here has changed. What is changing (and has changed already) is the declining dominance of American capitalism and US imperialism. The slipping of the crown of US dominance is forcing once stable friendships to fracture.
NATO’s aim was to be a supposed counterweight to Soviet aggression, one which was enshrined in Article 5, a commitment to mutual defence of NATO members in response to an attack by any external party. Trump is increasingly seeing NATO as a fetter rather than being beneficial, and therefore is prepared to use NATO as a bargaining chip for US leverage in future summits against Germany. An indication of this is that Trump is the first US president since Harry Truman to not publicly endorse Article 5.
Another acrimoniously issue to dominate the recent talks was the division over the climate change deal agreed in Paris in 2015. Trump feels that the economic burdens placed on the US from the Paris agreement - which in truth are extremely limited changes that will not reverse the environmental crisis - will ensure that US manufacturing will continue to be uncompetitive. Therefore, Trump will not say if the US will respect the agreement. This led Frau Merkel to call the discussions “very unsatisfying”, adding there was “no indication that the US will stay in the Paris agreement”.
Trump’s “America First” policies are a reflection of the growth of a protectionist trend in world relations, arising from the global crisis of capitalism. The slowdown of the world economy means that there is less loot to divide up between the imperialist pirates and the capitalist monopolies they defend. Protectionist actions will further destabilise and hasten the demise of agreements and alliances formed in the past period.
Yet, capitalist politicians will increasingly be able to do nothing about it. They will either dance to the new tune of protectionism or be thrown off the floor. The clash between America and Europe, according to the Financial Times, “does not bode well for the future of the Western alliance.” The old world is crumbling before us. It is our task to organise a force in society that can create a new socialist world where none of these thieves can continue with their plundering.