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Pay Attention to What is Happening between the US and its Traditional Allies

Pay Attention to What is Happening between the US and its Traditional Allies

Saturday, 9 June, 2018 - 09:00
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

It is easy to understand why readers of this newspaper pay very close attention to the many crises in the Middle East such as in Yemen and Syria. I hope the readers will forgive me therefore if I offer some advice. Don’t forget to watch what is happening between the United States and its traditional political and economic allies in Europe and Japan. In my 40 years as a diplomat and university professor, I have never seen the relations between the United States and its traditional allies with such big problems. And in my experience, it is impossible to have a dependable political alliance if the members of the alliance are in the middle of an economic war.

Here is the first event to watch. On June 7 and 8 a meeting of defense ministers of the NATO alliance was held in Brussels. The discussions were supposed to focus on military spending and military capabilities. All the NATO members had confidence in US Defense Secretary James Mattis. However, trade issues entered the NATO agenda. The defense minister of Canada, Harjit Sejjan, told Canadian media he would talk a lot at the NATO meeting about the new trade restrictions the United States is imposing on Canada. The Trump administration acknowledged it has imposed new taxes on Canadian steel imports to protect American national security. The Canadians say it is ridiculous to call Canada a national security threat to the United States. Some of the European members of NATO have said that they also wanted to discuss new American taxes on European steel and aluminum exports on the margins of the NATO meeting. The Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, told the media on June 5 that these economic disputes are causing serious divisions inside the Atlantic Alliance and he has to try to “reduce and limit the negative consequences for NATO.”

The next event to watch is the summit of the leaders of the 7 major economies, the G7, in Canada that kicked off on Friday. At a meeting last week to prepare for the summit, the finance ministers of the seven countries could not agree on a joint communique. There were big disagreements about trade, about environment policy and, of course, about the American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. It is extremely unusual for the seven countries – who have been close allies for 60 years – not to agree on a joint communique. A Japanese official told the media that he has participated for 20 years preparing these summits and he had never seen the United States isolated like it is now.

French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May have talked to Trump this week, but the conversations were terrible according to media reports. The strongest criticisms of America came from Canada, perhaps America’s closest ally. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, angry about the new American taxes on Canadian steel and aluminum exports, executed new taxes against some American products in retaliation. He said the American trade actions are “insulting” to Canada which had fought in wars alongside American soldiers. A woman in the Canadian city of Hamilton, where there is a big steel factory, told the New York Times on June 1 the American tax is a “slap in the face of Canadians.”

Meanwhile, President Trump last week ordered his administration to stop sanctions against a large Chinese telecommunications company, ZTE, that had been doing business with Iran and North Korea. The business deals were illegal under American sanctions. The American legal penalties were going to be severe, but the President in a tweet said that he wanted to help save Chinese jobs. The administration has not been able to explain why the president is worried about jobs in China, which is not an American ally, but not so worried about deteriorating economic relations with NATO countries and Japan.

Perhaps this is part of Trump’s negotiating strategy. Perhaps he will change his mind. NATO will not collapse next week. Unlike America’s trading partners in Canada and Mexico, the European countries and Japan have not implemented their threats to retaliate and launch a trade war. NATO had a crisis in 1956 about Suez and a crisis in 2003 about Iraq. We should also remember that 1956 and 2003 didn’t involve business relations and the health of alliance members’ economies. A former American ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, told the American media this week that alliances like NATO depend on trust. What we are watching is a Trump administration acid eroding before our eyes the key western alliances that American presidents since Franklin Roosevelt were building. If this doesn’t change, international geopolitics in less than 20 years will be extremely different.

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