Trump in Europe: an expression of capitalism in turmoil

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Events around Trump’s visit to Europe have very clearly confirmed the main ideas developed in the report on imperialist tensions (June 2018), in particular the notion that the USA has now become the main propagator of the tendency of “every man for himself” on a global level, even to the point of trashing the instruments of its own “world order”.  

The July NATO summit in Brussels was marked by the noisy and threatening demands of US President Trump that European NATO members should increase as quickly and massively as possible their military budgets -first to 2% and even to 4%, an amount the US claims to have been spending for some time.

Trump’s complaint that the gigantic level of American military spending constitutes a terrible burden on the US economy and its competitiveness is certainly not fake news. The decade- long financing of a military machine present on all continents of the world, and the economic price of the USA’s fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq, are suffocating the American economy. This is the inevitable product of the cancer of militarism. And yet the running US budget has allocated again a much bigger share to armaments spending than during the previous years – and this orientation was pushed both by the Democratic Party and the Republicans[1]. So despite the warning that the spiralling costs of militarism are undermining the overall performance of the US economy, sooner or later the militarist drive compels all governments in the world to sacrifice ever more resources and expenditure to this insatiable Moloch. The fact that the armaments companies make gorgeous profits out of this doesn’t prevent the weakening of the economy as a whole. The example of Russia in the 70s and 80s serves as a warning: the crippling weight of its military sector, the unwinnable arms race with the US, was a key factor in the collapse of the entire Stalinist regime.

At the same time, Trump‘s threats that if the European ‘allies’ do not increase their military budgets according to US demands, the US might go it alone, might even leave NATO, brings him into a direct conflict with those who up to now have defended the global imperialist interests of US capital.

There is certainly a logic in Trump’s antipathy to NATO, which in many ways is a vestige of the period of the blocs and whose role in today’s multipolar world has become increasingly uncertain. At the time of the Cold War, NATO was the central instrument of a military bloc with the US at its head, allowing it to impose its own decisions and a bloc-wide discipline. And even after the Russian bloc collapsed in 1989-91, NATO has still served as a US-dominated power structure, a means for preserving American global hegemony and opposing the centrifugal tendencies among its former allies. In particular, NATO was used to install more troops in Central and Eastern Europe, pushing forward the US offensive against Russia. NATO still serves as a shield against Russia in the eyes of several Eastern European countries.

Of course, underneath all this, the advancing tendencies of “every man for himself”, of increasing tensions between nation states, has acted to steadily and irreversibly weaken US domination of NATO and its former allies. But Trump’s threats to withdraw  from NATO are still in direct conflict with the interests of the US military wing, which does not want to abandon what remains of the  leading position of the US within NATO, still less to drop NATO altogether. This faction of the ruling class understands that maintaining US hegemony is more than a problem of economics.  The NATO summit and Trump’s rambling threats reveal the reality of the effects of the cancer of militarism, but also the fact that the US ruling class is profoundly divided over its military orientations.

At the same time the results of the NATO summit could only reinforce the determination of the European member countries to increase their military spending and gain more room for manoeuvre outside of the zone of control by the US.  Trump‘s ultimatums were a welcome pretext for them to speed up this process, strengthening European ambitions to develop new military structures within the EU or outside, in particular between France and Germany, but also with the UK (irrespective of Brexit). So we see that the global weight of militarism does not wither away: when the previous military power structures erode, this only creates new tensions and new military alliances, however short-lived. As with any gang, when the top boss is weakened or toppled, the second-rate gangsters generally form new alliances before they start to get at each other…..

Immediately following the NATO summit, Trump paid a brief visit to the UK, whose politics, he observed, are in “somewhat turmoil”. He then proceeded to increase the turmoil by appearing to undermine Theresa May’s efforts to cobble together a Brexit agreement, declaring that she hadn’t done what he had told her to do and that the deal with the EU she was proposing would rule out a trade deal with the US – having previously praised cabinet rebel Boris Johnson by saying he would make a “great prime minister”. The damage caused by all this was done, despite furious back-peddling at the press conference at Chequers where Trump stood side by side with May. And after defining the EU as a “foe” just before his summit with Putin, the attitude of this “disrupter” president towards the EU – which had been set up as part of the western bloc and which the US continued to support in the post-89 world order – clearly parallels his approach to NATO.

Then came the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki. This demonstrated  above all that the ruling class in the US have a president at their head who is acting more and more on his own or who only insists on very specific interests, in particular short term economic calculations. Instead of being a centralising force directing the military and security forces, he acts not only  without consultation with them, but he even expressed a bigger faith in the words of Putin than in those of his security apparatus as regards Russian meddling in the US elections.  It is obvious that Trump has become more unpredictable than ever, and the ridiculous corrections of his most outlandish statements cannot hide the real quagmire the US ruling class finds itself in.

In the same way as his attitude at the NATO summit showed the divisions within the ruling class, the fiasco of the Putin meeting highlights growing conflicts within and between the military/ security apparatus and the White House, within and between certain branches of industry and important wings of the state. Opposition to Russian imperialist ambitions has been deeply entrenched in US imperialist policy since 1945 and has only been reinforced by Putin’s aggressive foreign policy. The idea that Trump, and with him certain factions of the ruling class, might be willing to do all kinds of deals with Putin, or are even acting as his stooges, is a source of considerable anxiety in the most established factions of the US ruling class, who are not convinced by the argument that the US could usefully ally with Russia against the bigger threat posed by China and as a counter-weight to the EU.

When Trump arrived in the UK, he was “welcomed” by tens, even hundreds of thousands of protestors, angered by his racist statements on immigration, his open admission of sexual abuse, his praise for the “fine people” of the fascist right. But these demonstrations were very clearly on a bourgeois terrain, not least because they were openly encouraged by ruling class mouthpieces like The Guardian and the Evening Standard. Their focus was above all on Trump the man: his orange skin, his comb-over, his small hands and penis, the enlightening fact that one meaning of “trump” is “fart”. The problem with all this is that it hides what’s really at stake in the situation. Just as 10 years ago the bankers were held responsible for an economic crisis which is rooted in the impersonal contradictions of capital, so today Trump is blamed for the growing political, economic, and military chaos, when in the end he is only the product of this chaos, which derives from the underlying reality that we are living through the disintegration and decomposition of an entire social system. As one of the placards at the London demo put it: “can we please let the smart people run things now?”. But replacing Trump with a smarter and more responsible politician will not halt capitalism’s slide into the abyss of barbarism. Only a determined struggle against world capital, a struggle aimed at its overthrow, can offer humanity that hope.

DA, 24.7.18


[1]On March 16, 2017 President Trump submitted his request to Congress for $639 billion in military spending—$54 billion—which represents a 10 percent increase—for FY 2018 as well as $30 billion for FY2017 which ends in September. ... The Congress increased the budget to total 696 billion dollar.  That $61 billion increase matches or even surpasses Russia's entire military budget each year. It's more than the Trump administration originally requested. It rivals two big spending surges during President George W. Bush's administration, in 2003 and 2008, which went to fund the Iraq War. "Today, we receive the largest military budget in history, reversing many years of decline and unpredictable funding," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2018/03/26/596129462/how-the-pentagon-plans-to-spend-that-extra-61-billion?t=1532333040329)