Suzerain-Vassals Relations: How Trump Shapes His European Policy

Last week, Donald Trump demonstrated the stark contrast between the way he talks with Vladimir Putin who, albeit an opponent, is still the head of a great power, and the way he talks with European leaders, seen as vassals. At a meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker on July 25, the US president called a spade a spade once again and sent Europe a clear message that the western alliance is not a union of equals anymore. No matter how the trade war ends for Europe, the rules of the game have changed, said Andrei Korobkov, Professor of political science at the Middle Tennessee State University, in an interview with

On July 25, the United States emerged the winner of the trade war with Europe while Donald Trump gained the upper hand in his struggle both internationally and domestically, vanquishing his US opponents, who regard him as a “systemic threat.”

That was a very important moment for the US President, because European countersanctions could have hit hard his own allies. When Trump announced his decision to deliver $12 billion in aid to US farmers, he was fiercely criticized by both economic conservatives representing the real economy and laissez-faire libertarians like Rand Paul.

Trump, however, came out triumphant: the Europeans backtracked, making unilateral concessions. They said that they would not introduce tariffs and agreed to buy more American LNG and beans. Trump entered the game and he won.

United States – China – Russia

Further development of US-Europe ties is a very profound strategic issue. The rise of China led to the shift of the world power centers. The WTO-based model, which has existed since 1995, has become inefficient.

According to Trump, it was built on the premise that the US economy is the world’s strongest and most efficient and the WTO model would enable it to expand the US exports by destroying other countries’ tariff barriers. It ended up in what Trump calls “the Chinese model”. Therefore it needs to be completely destroyed and replaced with something new. The tariff ultimatums are only “adjustment fire” in this trade war.

At the same time, the US President believes that an alliance with Russia will help him counteract the Chinese economic expansion – and this is what the American elites refuse to understand as they hamper improvement of the US-Russia ties.

Trump’s vision includes two options: either Russia counters the United States together with China or it is with the United States against China. Therefore, the absolute center of Trump’s concept is forming an alliance with Russia against China or at least trying to prevent Russia’s drift toward China.

Divide and rule

Europe is losing its economic and political significance against the background of this great anti-China game. During the Cold War, Europe was considered the center of the conflict, the potential battlefield for the two ideological poles, the USSR and the US. It was allocated huge amounts of money and its complete security was guaranteed by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. It has all changed now. Today, Europe is a periphery and should be treated accordingly. This is not a dialogue of equals, but a conversation of a superpower, which gives guarantees and money, and second-rank powers, which will do what they are told to. And it is only on these terms that this conversation can continue.

This explains Trump’s behavior when he deals with European leaders, his tariff threats and using the “divide and rule” tactics. Trump has made it clear that France is now his privileged partner in Europe, while the Brits and the Germans should not be trusted too much. He demonstrated the stark contrast between the way he talks with Vladimir Putin who, albeit an opponent, is still the head of a great power, and the way he talks with European leaders, seen as mere vassals.

No matter how the trade war ends for Europe, the rules of the game have changed. Trump is calling a spade a spade once again and sending Europe a clear message: “Yes, we are ready to defend you, we are ready to give you guarantees, but you must play by our economic rules, pay for your defense and this is not a ‘union of equals’ any longer.”

Who is to blame and what is to be done?

Europe has nowhere to go. For it, walking out of the alliance with the United States means throwing itself on Vladimir Putin’s mercy, something it dreads, because over the past four years it has managed to frighten itself with the “Russian threat” and believe in it along the way.

Their declarations notwithstanding, the Europeans will do what the Americans tell them to, albeit reluctantly. They simply have no other guarantor of security and stability of the international system. They will not seek protection in China and, even more so, Russia.

Therefore, one cannot rule it out that Europe will from time to time suggest creating alternative alliances, including military ones, but these ideas will lead to nothing. All European attempts to initiate military operations have led to debacle and one can hardly expect anything different. Hence, the significance of Europe – political, economic and military – will dwindle. Whatever is said publicly, this reality will be increasingly recognized behind the closed doors.

Of course, as they strengthen their hard power, including vis-à-vis Europe, Americans are losing their soft power. But this model, proposed by Trump, will be in force as long as he is the president. It remains to be seen how the midterm elections in November end, but it is clear that Trump is more in control of the Republican Party than he used to be, while the Democrats are entering a zone of chaos. These elections can end in surprising results, very different from what Trump’s opponents expected only a couple of months ago.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.