Immediately after the NATO summit, the war organization’s newest strategy to expand its influence has come up against an increasingly unified resistance – which is bad news for NATO’s crumbling internal political life.
In particular, there has been a huge amount of media regarding Trump’s demand that NATO countries increase defense spending to 3% of their total budget, and the United States has even begun to regulate how this defense budget is to be spent by foreign countries.
For many analysts, Trump’s actions seem erratic, or even traitorous, as such demands, along with the commanding and patronizing tone in which they were made, have really let the mask slip off regarding the alleged “fraternity” and “sovereignty” of NATO.
Commentators have even suggested that when Trump looks at these larger, globally oriented formations, he doesn’t see allies, but rather competitors and opponents. Despite that most are using the now expectant hysteria that is all but required in articles about Trump in general, there is some truth to the idea: Trump’s corporatist and business-like attitude is not a gimmick, but something we could graciously call an ideology, or perhaps more accurately describe as a character trait.
Trump talks about America’s relationship to NATO in the terms of a “bad deal”, and we are meant to understood that “deal” here comes in the most literal sense of a business deal.
What is fascinating here is that two rhetorical modes which we have come to see as naturally wedded are coming into contradiction. Paradoxically enough, Trump is somehow highlighting a serious fault point in geopolitical discourse. We should spell out exactly what this contradiction is and see how it looks in practice.
Neoliberalism is the reigning ideology of globalizing structures like the European Union, the IMF and the United Nations. Deregulation and privatization is a golden standard which these political mechanisms simply enforce. There is endless literature showcasing the specifics of this outlook, (with some reservation, those who are interested can look to Naomi Klein or David Harvey who have written simple and illustrative books which popularized the terminology) but also some glaring examples from recent politics which more quickly illustrate the problem for us.
Countries which are insufficiently accommodated to international business mandates are quickly reigned in through a variety of measures ranging from “strong suggestions” to military intervention.
Just recently, the IMF all but forced Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega to institute extremely unpopular pension reforms, which led to massive protests through the country. Nicaragua is a fiercely democratic country with a politicized population accustomed to fighting for their demands– Ortega, as their populist leader, listened to those voices and promptly canceled the proposed reforms… nonetheless the protests continue, fanned by the co-vert military wing of international trade which has made itself famous in Venezuela, Chile, Panama and dozens of other nations in South America and around the globe.
The threshold of international finance’s tolerance for any opposition has become increasingly lower, mirroring the increasing intensity of problems in the global economic sphere, as dwindling resources turn former compromises into violent interventions. This example highlights the complex connection between multiple levels of discourse in the geopolitical arena at any given time, but primarily how expensive Western state-sponsored intervention programs act as tools to accomplish economic goals.
With this context in the background, Trump is essentially playing the role of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear: albeit accidentally, he is highlighting a contradiction that would otherwise remain the shaky center of a crumbling kingdom.
Trump is actually trying to run the country as a business, and thus his relationship to NATO is not that of a General ready to make a “pivot toward Asia” or toss ungodly amounts of money at expanding U.S. drone programs abroad (as was the case for Obama), but he has instead forced a reflection on the nature of that arrangement in general, which his comments make rather clear.
On the one hand, despite that it might be true that these countries are not “paying their way” in regard to NATO’s defense costs, and despite that this fact would be an obvious state of affairs for a cynical politician who knows that this is because such an arrangement ultimately benefits the U.S. global hegemony, as a particular business strategy it doesn’t seem to make much sense.
In other words, there is a contradiction between the extreme state sponsored cost of global policing, and the economic foundations which precipitate that kind of control; this is why his push towards “striking a better deal” in NATO could almost be seen as an act of absurdist theater: NATO is the sphere that enforces business, it is the exception, it should not itself be brought into that same neoliberal structure… it ends up looking like a snake eating its own tail.
Even more bizarre, however, is that Trump seems to be picking up on the contradiction from both sides of the equation, meaning that this isn’t just a question of his business acumen interfering in a sphere totally unsuited to such strategies: when Trump made the statement that Germany “is totally controlled” by Russia, he highlighted that expediency in trade relations, in this case, stood opposed to the obvious goal of NATO which is to contain and strangle Russia through sanctions at home and through regime change along its border. It was almost as if he directly stated that Germany’s need for access to Russia’s natural resources was complicating the United States long term goal of militarily (or clandestinely) defeating or controlling Russia.
My suggestion is not that Trump is a political genius, but that Trump’s inability to act as a traditional politician (from either side of the aisle) is making him serve as an unwitting conduit, which clumsily exposes facts that are hidden in plain sight.
Trump is aware of both the surface level / immediate goal (in the case of NATO: contain Russia and China, expand US sphere of influence) and its structural foundation (facilitate uninterrupted trade, understanding that ultimately contemporary state-craft is a product of business).
He is almost like a child who articulates those things the adults in the room know are better left unsaid. With this in mind, it is clear why many commentators in the West are absolutely stunned by Trump’s attitude.
Despite the “Resistance’s” penchant for public displays of Trump’s naked body, he might actually be the one who has pointed out that everyone at the NATO summit had forgotten their suits.