President Trump and Secretary General Stoltenberg during a NATO family photo on 11 July 2018 (Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead, public domain) (via: bit.ly)

Trying to identify the inner logic of the Trump presidency, while at the same time not blaming his incessant antics on some fault of mind or personality, an answer can be found in what and whom they both represent, the president and his opponents. True to his election promise and counter to what most expected, Donald Trump has managed avoid being absorbed by his country’s political class[1] in in the first one and a half years of his presidency. Trump remains what he used to be during his time as frowned-upon businessman: an outsider. The closest classification would be that of a Roman tribunus plebis, the ‘tribune of the people’. While his enemies from Manhattan to Washington to Hollywood represent their elite class, he represents a large part of the electorate, millions of John and Jane Does.

The Helsinki meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin made this more than clear. The US-Russia standoff is not a standoff of Trumps electorate, and it is not his. The John Does don’t see the need for it, and that isn’t meant condescendingly. Two messages, elaborated in various tweets, revealed Trump’s key issues during his tour of Europe. One qualified the conflict with Moscow as largely without substance and needlessly aggravated by his predecessor. The other was the berating of Europeans for expecting the US to pay for their defense. Both relate to an argument uttered a million times across the US by Trump supporters: We don’t see Russian threat to our country, and if the Europeans believe there is one to Europe, let them take care of it themselves.

The political class, now united against its president, comes from exactly the opposite side. Of course, they too do not perceive a real Russian threat to the US or to Europe, nothing more than some superficial disturbance. But they do see the need to uphold the liberal, rules-based world order shaped during the decades after World War II. In Western Europe, this is also called the ‘European peace or security order’.

Here, the problems start. For years Russian political observers, and less outspoken Russian politicians, have doubted the existence or, say, the validity of such an order. In a 2015 book, Moscow political scientist Fyodor Lukyanov stated that since the NATO bombardment of Syria in 1999, there can’t be any reasonable talk of a mutually acknowledged European security order. When the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov repeatedly accuses the West of applying double standards in the cases of Libya or Kosovo, he has the same in mind.

Now, regardless of whether this order is objectively fictitious or not, at least Russia does not fully acknowledge it. Firm confirmations of this were the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the support of pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. From a Russian point of view, both were in defense of legitimate Russian interests after the malevolent instrumentalisation of Ukrainian sovereignty to promote Western interests. From a Western point of view, they were clear breaches of the European security order. The narratives are known and require no repetition.

To date, and by its own logic, the West (first and foremost its leading power), has no choice other than to confront Russia on the transgression, force it to obey, and back-pedal. Any compromising would implicate the fictitiousness of the rules-based security order. Valid rules must be enforceable. Thus, unenforceable rules lack validity.

The West is stuck in a dilemma. Russia is neither isolated nor on its knees. On the horizon new aspirants rise, China, possibly Iran and others, equally unwilling to succumb to rules that were formulated during an era of fundamentally different geopolitical circumstance. While the political class in the West cling to the status quo, their citizens, as in Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, begins to see through the machinations and narratives. Now, Donald Trump, a representative of that highly amorphous ‘public’ has ascended the throne. And that man, with all his peculiarities, is fully intent not to pose naked for his courtiers. He shrugs away the hallowed post-war, transatlantic security order that has expired its shelf life, and nonchalantly moves forward. The courtiers are left shell-shocked.

It is rather easy to determine which conflicts Trump is ready to take on and which not. Obviously the West-Russia standoff over the global security order is not one. All the more, and in stark contrast, he is fighting North Stream 2, the Russian-German pipeline project that will provide Western Europe with an annual addition of 55 billion cubic meters of Russian gas. At stake are the sales prospects of US borne fracking gas, liquified and shipped to the 32 European LNG terminals. On that matter, Trump is not the people’s tribune, but the tribune of big US business. Cheap Russian gas makes Europe an unattractive market, and cheaper Russian gas makes it even more unattractive. To defend the interests of his big business clients – and regardless of his willingness to entertain ‘bromantical’ moments with his Russian counterpart – Donald Trump remains ready to chastise Moscow’s politics at will and at any time. Thus, there is logic, and all those tweets that seem so bizarre and contradictory, not necessarily are.

Another conflict he is willing to engage in full measure is with China. In fact, Trump’s intention to resolve the US-Russia stalemate and get Europe to fend for itself are immediately linked to the pivot to Asia started by Barack Obama. If only in that one respect, Trump has proven to be Barack Obama’s legitimate heir. It is China, not Russia, that will eventually challenge the US’s reach in Trump’s view. At present, the rivalry is playing out economically, but future military disputes are already on the map. For the time being, both Washington and Beijing are in need of each other, but a showdown will come, and both are aware of it. That explains why the US president is increasingly less inclined to guarantee Europeans a life in luxurious liberty or uphold their dogmas of global security and control.

With the Western political elite rooted in the Atlantic mindset of the 20th century, the outsider Donald Trump represents some sort of future, a post-European United States. Down to his style, his communication, and outward appearance, so strange and outlandish in the eyes of the Old World, everything about this man is beyond Europe. As such, he is a harbinger of times to come, and that is what the Europe has to put up with. The US is still a young power, fifteen times younger than those across the Atlantic. They retain the ambition to stay on top, fight the next contender, pocket defeats and move ahead. Power and might are paramount, values and style come second. They will leave behind an aging Europe without qualms.

[1] A term covering the whole scope of non-fringe politicians, media, and civil servants