Category Archives: Trump and US Foreign Policy

The Empire Strikes Back: The Return of US-Saudi Relations

Introduction: Trump Changes Everything

What a difference an administration makes. In the last, dying days of the presidency of Barack Obama, US-Saudi ties—long a mainstay of American foreign policy—seemed to hit an all-time low. Whether the issue was Congress probing official Saudi complicity in the 9/11 attacks (wherein 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi), tensions over the fracking revolution and its threat to Riyadh’s dominance of the global energy market, or the White House bringing Iran in from the cold, the Saudi princes and the Obama administration seemed increasingly locked into diametrically opposed positions. The imminent demise of this central pillar of traditional US foreign policy seemed increasingly likely.  

 But that was then, this is now. With the shocking advent of the Trump administration, while the rest of the world cowers in uncertainty, the regime of King Salman (and his favoured son Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) can barely contain its glee. Suddenly, Saudi Arabia has gone in a blink of an eye from pariah to partner. What explains this dramatic sea-change in US-Saudi relations and is it likely to last, strategically changing the new map the Obama White House laid down for America’s relations with the Middle East as a whole?

 Obama’s bold Middle East Strategy

Barack Obama’s Middle East strategy is emblematic of his presidency as a whole: it is rational, innovative, measured, and not fated to survive as the old White House was so ghastly at both domestic political and policy follow-through. While Obama did indeed advocate a creative, realist foreign policy for the region, he never groomed a political heir to follow in his footsteps.

 The result of this cardinal mistake left America at the last, dispiriting election choosing between a creaky Wilsonian in Hillary Clinton and a mad-as-hell Jacksonian nationalist in Donald Trump. The basic point is that neither candidate was likely to sustain Obama’s realist strategic shifts in foreign policy, rendering them an impermanent and ethereal blip on America’s overall foreign policy radar. This is a tragedy for both the US and the world as the former president analytically got a lot right about the new era we live in, even if he did almost nothing practical to sustain his new foreign policy vision.

 For Obama it is self-evident that the US now finds itself in a multipolar world, where the United States remains first amongst equals by a long way at the global power table, but where rising powers (from an admittedly low base) are relatively gaining on Washington, year on year.

 This cresting of American power showed itself most tragically and graphically in Washington fighting a catastrophic war of choice in Iraq, the end result of which was to hugely discredit American power across the globe, leave Iran the dominant power in the strategic Persian Gulf, and to (in the predictable vacuum that was created due to Sunni political disenfranchisement) lead indirectly to the rise of the diabolical ISIS. By doing as the president put it, ‘Stupid Stuff,’ Washington’s neoconservative hawks had unwittingly opened Pandora’s Box, exposing America’s limitations for all the world to see.

 This avoidable debacle–which sprung directly from neoconservatives on the right and Democratic hawks on the left jointly overrating America’s power in the world—now had to be corrected. Coupled with the Lehman global economic crisis of 2008, it was clear to Obama that the new era was now one of multipolarity. Overall American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, stood in desperate need of a course change more accurately reflecting these new global power realties.

 So Obama began the laborious process of trying to extricate America from its over-involvement in the Middle East, ideally moving it toward the role of off-shore balancer. This meant Iran–long the great enemy in the region of both Riyadh and Washington—had to be brought in from the cold. This was duly accomplished through Obama’s landmark nuclear deal with Tehran, which Saudi Arabia hated for both tactical as well as these more strategic reasons.

 For Obama desired a Middle East of five great regional powers–Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and Iran—which over time would form an organic balance of power. This meant America, rather than wasting ever-more blood and treasure in the sands of the region, could instead concentrate on East Asia where things were both strategically and economically rosier. America would only have to intervene in the Middle East if one of these five countries grew too powerful, upsetting the organic balance. Short of this, America would have extricated itself from the regional morass, even leaving some semblance of stability in its wake.

 Obviously, such an American regional strategy was anathema to Riyadh, as it diminished US ties to Saudi Arabia, built up Washington’s heretofore fraught links with the great enemy Iran, and lessened the sole superpower’s involvement in the Middle East as a whole. Looked at from this grand strategic level it is easy to see why King Salman found the administration of Barack Obama such a danger to Saudi Arabia’s long-term interests.

 Trump returns the old order

 But due to Obama’s inability (and even disinclination) to groom a realist foreign policy heir and the shock of Donald Trump’s victory, things are rapidly returning to normal in the Middle East. Gone is the talk of off-shore balancing and improving ties with Iran, and with it the downgrading in importance of formerly close US-Saudi relations. Instead, both (often warring) foreign policy camps in the Trump White House espouse strategies that unwittingly move Saudi-US links back to centre stage.

 The more ideological wing of the Trump White House—epitomised by Senior Counsellor and erstwhile National Security Council (NSC) member Steve Bannon and the new president himself—sees (utterly wrongly in my view) radical Islam as the number one global threat to America. Here, and despite the long-running 9/11 controversy, Saudi Arabia has form as a counter-terror partner.

 Indeed, Crown Prince (and also current Interior Minister) Mohammed bin Nayef made his name as the man who effectively eradicated al-Qaeda from his homeland. The new Trump administration has signalled its approval for bin Nayef by awarding him the CIA’s George Tenet medal for his work in counter-terrorism. With ISIS on the wane (though work still has to be done to dislodge them from their capital of Raqqa in Syria) and al-Qaeda regrouping, Bannon and his colleagues see Riyadh as a vital ally in the ongoing fight against (in their view) this primary American enemy.

 Likewise, the other more traditionally realist faction in the Trump White House’s foreign policy team—signified by General James Mattis at the Pentagon, Mike Pompeo at the CIA and General H.R. McMaster at the NSC—sees old enemy Iran as still the primary American nemesis in the region as a whole.

 During their initial January 29, 2017 phone call, President Trump told King Salman that he agreed with the Saudis that Tehran is the greatest threat to regional stability, and that the hated Iran nuclear deal must be vigorously enforced. This is obviously music to Riyadh’s ears, particularly after its concerns over Iran were met by a very different mixture of neglect and derision by the old Obama White House.

 Since the start of his insurgent campaign, Trump has belittled the Iranian nuclear deal—the centrepiece of Obama’s efforts in the region—disdaining it as a terrible pact. While he has grudgingly agreed to support the agreement for now, the new administration has also made it very clear they will aggressively enforce its provisions for oversight of the Iranian nuclear programme, being ever-vigilant for any signs of Iranian cheating.

 General Mattis, the former commander of US forces in the region, well remembers that Iraqi Shia militia, allied with Iran, killed many of his men. He has unequivocally gone on the record saying Iran is the world’s ‘biggest sponsor of terrorism.’   

 Strikingly, then, over the Middle East these two warring foreign policy factions—for the very different priorities of radical Islam and Iran—have bureaucratically found common cause over a return to what amounts to the old, traditional American regional policy of support for a Sunni axis in the region (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt) plus Israel, against both Iran and radical Sunni jihadism.

 The Trump White House’s downgrading of the importance of human rights in crafting overall American foreign policy is also pleasing to the repressive (or increasingly repressive in the case of Turkey) regimes in Riyadh, Cairo, and Ankara. Due to this American foreign policy bureaucratic compromise, things on the surface have quickly and startlingly returned to normal in terms of America’s Middle East policy, with Saudi Arabia resuming its central role in US strategic thinking.

 Irritants Plaguing US-Saudi ties

 But as the American novelist Thomas Wolfe makes clear with his book title, You Can’t Go Home Again. The Trump White House’s Middle East policy is bound to founder, both due to its ongoing frictions, myriad contradictions, and the simple geostrategic fact that the world has definitively changed, much as Barack Obama sensed that it had.

 For all their broader strategic alignment, over many important issues Saudi Arabia and the US remain far apart. The cavalier (in this case utterly historically merited) disregard the Trump team places over negotiating a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement rankles the Saudis, who have paid much traditional lip service to the importance of such a deal.

 Likewise, while Washington under Obama vacillated but limited its exposure to the hell that is Syria, Riyadh has been more closely identified with supporting the anti-Assad rebels, even as the US has concentrated on ridding the world of ISIS. While King Salman made it clear to the president during their January 2107 conversation that he supports Trump’s call for humanitarian safe havens in the country, even if these can be managed (a highly dubious proposition) the two countries have widely differing primary goals in that war-ravaged country.

 The final irritant is that the fracking revolution has caught everyone unawares, lessening America’s direct dependence on Saudi oil and thus on the centrality of the relationship itself. In 2003, the US imported 648 million barrels of oil from Riyadh. This has dramatically shrunk to just 387 million barrels in 2015.

 Worse geo-economically for the Saudis, with the emergence of America as the third energy superpower (along with Saudi Arabia and Russia), fracking has put a permanent ceiling on global prices. As they rise, fracking comes back online quickly, as costs for fracking are far lower to bring rigs on and off line than they are for the fixed oil platforms which dominate both Saudi and Russian production.

 In essence, this permanent ceiling means the Saudis (through their proxy, OPEC) have lost control over calling the tune for global energy prices permanently. This huge geo-economic shift will have obvious and lasting effects on US-Saudi ties, serving to diminish them as the new energy reality becomes clearer.

 The Practical Contradictions Threatening Trump’s Middle East Policy

 Additionally, both wings of Trump’s foreign policy team are going to have to deal with the obvious contradictions that spring from their bureaucratic political agreement to return America to a Sunni-driven (plus Israel) regional policy. A most obvious geostrategic contradiction stems from the Trump team’s notorious desire to do more with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, even as it ostracizes the Kremlin’s longstanding ally, Iran.

 For if the US wants to do less in the Middle East—as ironically both Trump and Obama agree on—working with Iran becomes practically essential. In Iraq, Washington needs Tehran’s help to stabilise the country following ISIS’s (inevitable) defeat in Mosul, as the dominant Shia political parties in Baghdad are under Iran’s sway. Also, in desperate Syria, the increasingly ascendant Assad, Russian, and Iranian forces must be accommodated if ISIS is to be eradicated in the east of the country.

 In Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam-like foray into what amounts to a civil war with the Iranian-backed Houthis has led to a debilitating stalemate which has allowed the local branch of al-Qaeda to prosper. Again, help from Iran is necessary to disentangle Saudi Arabia (and to a lesser extent, the US) from the morass and to take the fight to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

 In each of these practical policy cases, Iran simply cannot be wished away. Its relative ascendancy over the past few years vis a vis Saudi Arabia means that it must either be engaged, and these devilish problems addressed, or it can be shunned and the region as a whole will continue to burn.

 The geopolitical contradictions threatening Trump’s Middle East policy

 Things are even worse for the ideologues clustered around Bannon in the Trump White House, those who believe that radical Islam is the greatest foreign policy challenge confronting the United States. They are surely, obviously, wrong about this.

 Instead, the tragedy of American foreign policy analysis is that following on from 9/11, radical Islam went from being an understudied second-order problem to an over-studied second order problem. But compared with the ascendance of China as a long-term American competitor, the rise of other Emerging Markets and powers and the dawn of the new multipolar era, radical Islam lacks the capacity to change the very nature of the world in the way these other challenges do. As such, this basic geopolitical misreading of the world will inevitably skew American foreign policy away from focusing on the things that really strategically matter.

 Even assuming somehow that Bannon’s view of the world is correct and radical Islam is the primary long-term threat to the United States, the Janus-faced nature of the Saudi regime over the radical Islam issue provides little room for comfort. For if the Saudi government did not officially support the 9/11 hijackers, as the 9/11 commission report makes clear elements of the far-flung royal family surely did.

 Riyadh’s bankrolling of radical Wahabist preachers around the world has not helped America’s war against radical Islam, to put it mildly. For every Prince Mohammed bin Nayef—a Saudi leader rightly concerned about what the spread of radical Islam could mean for the survival of the House of Saud itself—there is a murkier, more ambiguous tale to tell about Saudi Arabia and radical Islam.

 But the limits to Riyadh’s help in combatting radical Islam is not the only geostrategic problem for Bannon’s allies. Donald Trump came to power espousing an overall ‘America First’ view of the world. Put simply, the US should focus intensely on its interests to the exclusion of all else, and primarily should transactionally work with those countries who help it achieve its immediate goals.

 The problem with translating this set of America-First impulses to the Middle East is that the Saudis just don’t allow the US to do this. It is ties with hated Iran—far more than Saudi Arabia—which hold the key to ‘solving’ the Iraq, Iran, and Yemeni crises. Iran, as the champion of Shia Islam, likewise has no real links to the Sunni radicalism at the base of the ISIS and al-Qaeda movements (compared to Riyadh’s ambiguous ties). Even Saudi Arabia’s energy pre-eminence is no more, due to America’s shale revolution. So using President Trump’s own America-First terms, Saudi Arabia will not be very helpful in stabilising the Middle East.

 Conclusion: The peril is you become everything you despise

 So if closer US-Saudi ties—and the doing away with the Obama administration’s more even-handed dealings with Iran in the region—lead to nothing much being accomplished in the region, what will the Trump White House then do? The traditional American temptation, to ‘do more’ in the Middle East has led to countless tragedies, and is in direct contradiction to the president’s own ‘America First’ proclivities, that the US should steer clear of foreign entanglements that do not directly and obviously benefit the United States.

 But just because the history is clear and Trump’s own proclivities are known does not mean that America will resist the siren song of further involvement in the Middle East, when it becomes clear to all that a return to intimate US-Saudi ties no longer yields very much in terms of the White House’s hoped-for transactional foreign policy.

 Returning to the comforts of close US-Saudi ties may presently make bureaucratic sense in Donald Trump’s Washington. But these old ties were the product of a very different geopolitical world. In the new multipolar era, American links with Saudi Arabia will yield less and less. It will be at this crucial point, a few years hence, that America must forgo its interventionist reflexes, and remember that it is Barack Obama’s off-shore balancing position which actually furthers American interests in this very new world we find ourselves in.

 Published in Limes Italy, April 2017.

 

 

 

          

 

        

 

  

 

 

 

The America First insurgents couldn’t withstand contact with the real world

“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

–Herbert Stein, Chairman of the US Council of Economic Advisers under Nixon and Ford

As has been true for most administrations over the past century, the new Trump regime came to Washington promising to change everything about the way the place worked and the policy outputs it produced. Over the past 100 years, only FDR and Reagan truly managed to do this. As such, it should come as little surprise that, with Trump’s slew of foreign policy about-turns on China, Nato, Russia, and Syria, the amateurish America Firsters’ reign at the top of US foreign policy lasted mere weeks, as its naïve view of the world could not withstand real world contact either with the Washington establishment or the verities of what is actually happening in the world.

Like many insurgencies, the America Firsters–epitomised by campaign svengali Steve Bannon and erstwhile National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn–have a good story to tell. Years of a gormless, utterly unaware American elite—the people I meet at swish conferences who are breathtakingly, wilfully unaware of the true damage they have done both in the sands of Iraq and to the global economy post-Lehman, and still think they are somehow entitled to run the world—running down the American lower middle class has given them a huge political opening. But if their narrative of elite incompetence is unerringly on the money, their practical policy alternatives have always amounted to little more than dangerous pixie dust.

For the American Firsters are, despite their conservative cloaking, genuine revolutionaries. They do not want to reform an establishment desperately in need of it, but rather throw the baby out with the bathwater and over-turn a global system which has safeguarded American dominance for the past 70 years and managed (just, thanks to JFK’s adroitness) to see off the cataclysm of another World War.

But here is where the real world kicks in. Gravity cannot be wished away, any more than the objective power realities of the present multipolar system. And, just as with gravity comes the affirmation of certain physical laws, so with the multipolarity of today comes political realities which just this past week reasserted themselves in terms of overall American foreign policy.

Not seeing that the perils of radical Islam—upsetting as they surely are—amount to a second order global problem that was under-studied before 9/11 and is over-studied now, the Bannonites have made its destruction the centrepiece of their foreign policy thinking, which inevitably leads to disastrous geostrategic results.

Much like the anarchist movement of the late nineteenth century—so wonderfully dissected in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent—radical Islam can kill and maim and even (in the case of the anarchists) bump off the odd Russian Tsar (Alexander II), American President (William McKinley), or Austrian Empress (Sisi). But it has nowhere near the power either to change the overall nature of the global system, or to replace the United States as the dominant power on earth. It is a real, vexing, terrible problem but not what geostrategists should be concentrating on.

From this mistake about the true nature of the world, all other America First strategies amount to being fruit from this poisoned analytical tree. Russia is not worth cosying up to for a whole host of reasons (Assad, Ukraine, meddling in western elections) as the aid it gives the West in fighting a soon-to-be extinct ISIS isn’t remotely worth the price. Russia is a weak, declining power, an aging gas station with nuclear weapons, but it is a far cry from being America’s new joint partner in combatting radical Islam.

Likewise, China—which along with rising democratic powers such as India is where American strategic attention absolutely ought to be—is not the villain of the piece. Instead, with the help of the only power which in a generation might emerge as a peer competitor to America, the Trump White House can master the hornet’s nest of the nuclear ambitions of ‘the crazy fat kid’ in North Korea (as Senator McCain has so memorably dubbed him), keep the global economic system on the road, and sooth tensions in the South China and East China Seas, preserving stability in the undoubted global engine for future economic growth.

In other words, in the world we actually live in (as opposed to the alternative reality populated by Flynn and Bannon and their henchmen), China is worth engaging, Russia is worth opposing, and radical Islam (while important) is worth taking a deep breath over.

All of this happened this past memorable week as gravity returned to international relations, and the Trump administration pivoted back to reality. Thank God.

Published in City AM London, April 18, 2107.

The end of the affair: US-German relations in the age of Trump

The End of the Affair: US-German relations in the age of Trump

 Introduction: The Body Language is that of an 80’s John Hughes Film

 Far too often, the press takes the garden variety meet and greet get- togethers of the world’s leaders overly seriously. Countries are–as they have been since the dawn of time—largely driven by interest calculations, rather than whether their leaders would be likely to go on a date together.

 Saying this, no one should doubt that personal chemistry does play a role at the margins as to whether states cooperate. It is simply human to be far more likely to take risks and make sacrifices for people we cannot help but like, even as it is a chore to do the same for those we simply cannot stand, even if it is in our interests to ultimately do so. That is what made the painfully awkward recent meeting at the White House between President Donald Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel so interesting, as it was palpably obvious these two creatures would never be fast friends, whatever the setting.

 Instead, Trump’s seeming refusal to even shake Merkel’s hand (despite her gentle cajoling) made the whole socially awkward situation resemble nothing so much as one of the wonderful 1980s movies of John Hughes, sympathetically if hilariously cataloguing the all-too-real angst and social awkwardness of American teenage life. Merkel resembled the class drudge—hardworking, socially awkward, conventional—forced to sit through a study hall with the High School jock in Trump.

 The President—bombastic, unpredictable, overly impressed with himself—looked at the Chancellor as though what she was and what she personally stood for came from another planet. As Hughes’s films wisely made clear, their frostiness on one level simply confirmed that they would never be going to the High School Prom together, as it is hard to imagine more different sorts of human being.

 Of course the lack of personal chemistry between Trump and Merkel matters more than usual just now as US-German relations have dramatically altered beyond all recognition. Their lack of personal rapport means that what would have invariably have been a hard landing for the two great powers—given their very different ideological and personal priorities—is in danger of becoming a free fall, not being cushioned by their two leader’s common affinity for one another keeping the show on the road. Instead, US-German relations in the age of Trump amounts to the end of the affair, when the two countries cease being allies in the classic sense of the term.

 Ideological canyons that cannot be crossed

 Even within the western alliance formed after World War II, the US and Germany always stood at opposite ideological ends of the common NATO spectrum, with Berlin being the most Wilsonian of the major powers while the United States was the most nationalistic. Strikingly, whoever ran Germany–be it the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) under Adenauer, Kohl, and Merkel or the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Brandt, Schmidt and Schroeder–the overall schools of thought foreign policy orientation of Germany altered very little. To this day, everyone of significance in the German foreign policy elite is some form of Wilsonian.

 Wilsonians emphasise international law and norms, the importance of international institutions such as the UN and the EU, that diplomacy (often on its own) should be the primary tool used to solve problems, that countries should almost always act on the international stage as part of larger alliances, and that the world is growing increasingly interdependent, meaning individual countries’ sovereignty matters less and less.

 The striking ideological difference between Germany and America is that while practically everyone in the former would find this view of the world simply the way things are, Wilsonianism represents only one of three basic American schools of thought impulses propelling American foreign policy forward in our new multipolar era (along with neo-conservatism, and realism). This is a huge difference and explains much of the reason for the present Berlin-Washington low-simmering crisis.

 In the new Trump administration there are presently duelling forms of realism, with not a Wilsonian in sight. Trump’s own Jacksonian nationalism has been shamefully understudied in European capitals (as has been America and its history, ideology, and culture in general) so that the new President of the United States is the rudest of ideological awakenings for Europeans in general, and Germans in particular. For it is impossible to think of two foreign policy ideologies that differ as profoundly as Jacksonianism and Wilsonianism.

 Jacksonians–named after the bellicose, populist seventh president—have long been an important, if minority view in American foreign policy thinking. Epitomised by the President’s ideological guru Steve Bannon, Jacksonians are populist (so distrustful of elites in general, let alone foreign ones), strongly nationalistic (caring solely about the American people), transactional (allies are only as useful as what they have done for America lately), and utterly relaxed with using force to specifically preserve American honour and narrow American interests.

 Jacksonians constitute a minority branch of realism that has suddenly and dramatically found its day in the sun under the new administration. As is true for Trump and Merkel personally, it is hard to imagine two creeds more diametrically opposed than the Wilsonianism of the Germans and the Jacksonianism of the new White House.

 Even more classical realists like Defence Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster are likely to ruffle German Wilsonian feathers. While far more accepting of the need to work with allies (frustrating as they can be) and to work in national coalitions of the willing to tackle common problems based on having specific shared interests, garden variety realists still do not make a fetish of alliances for their own sake, and demand that Europeans contribute in a way they have seldom been pushed to do so.

 Mattis’s recent declaration to Washington’s NATO allies that the US cannot care more about European security and Europeans do (given their shameful free riding off the American military due to their anaemic defence spending), is a common theme expounded upon by these more polished internationalist realists, as well as the more rough and ready Jacksonians such as Bannon. Given Germany’s woeful defence efforts (a paltry 1.19% of GDP in 2015) and stubborn refusal to do much to change this, an ideological and policy collision of some sort is practically inevitable.

 Different Policies for Different Worlds

 If the US and Germany are universes apart in terms of the efficacy of defence spending in the international arena (and the corresponding funding of their militaries), driving a stake through the heart of NATO, the same holds true for their positions on the EU, the other pivotal international institution in German eyes.

 While the success of the embattled EU is by far Berlin’s number one foreign policy priority, the Trump White House looks on Brussels with a mixture of contempt for its weakness (compared to its over-puffed sense of itself) and ideological antagonism, due to its elitist, technocratic, supranational ethos. Over time, the best that the German government can hope for from the Trump White House over this issue is indifference.

 This is particularly hard on the Germans, used to ritual American protestations of support for the European project. While for many years now these declarations of support have been little more than rhetorical, in many elite German eyes the continued benign support of the world’s only superpower matters, as it illustrates that Europe (and Germany) are not alone in their desire to make the EU the greatest of successes.

 At a deep psychological level, American support for the EU meant Europe was not being left alone, with all the historical baggage that entails. Ironically, the best Berlin can now hope for from the Trump administration is to be left alone.

 Practically, in terms of policy, this means if Brussels continues to fail to master the north-south euro crisis or the east-west schisms that have developed as a result of the refugee crisis, it is Berlin alone—with scant help from Washington—that will have to make the existential decisions about the future of the European project.

 Assuming the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential elections, he will be the last, best, chance the French elite have to right the ship of state after thirty years ignoring economic realities and the corresponding pathetic rates of French growth. Five more years of less than two percent growth, more terror attacks (tragically highly likely), and a lack of serious structural economic reform means a Le Pen presidency is a real possibility the next time, as—given those circumstances—populism would continue to be explosively on the rise in France. 

 Years of ineptitude and inaction have already taken their toll. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic it is highly likely this year that both the two major, established parties of the French right (the Republicans) and the left (the Socialists) will not have a candidate between them in the final round of voting in the French presidential election.

 Coupled with the fact that Macron will not have an established party behind him, betting against his chances to on his own manoeuver structural economic reform through the French parliamentary system (let alone highly traditional French society) is a reasonable wager for the Front National (FN) to make. Macron’s demise would signal the end of France as a pro-EU country, as well as the obliteration of three generations of German foreign policy.

 Germany also has its eyes nervously on its neighbour to the south as well as the west. For Italy is also too big to fail, and near the edge of a political nervous breakdown. Again, the causes are clear. Tellingly, the IMF estimates the country will not return to its pre-Lehman crisis economic size until far off 2025. As is true in France, the Italian political elite is tarred with the brush of colossal, endemic economic failure, with both the left under Renzi and the right under Berlusconi being severely discredited in the process.

 This has opened the door to the populist, euro-sceptic Five Star movement, waiting in the wings for the present—and yet another—cobbled together weak establishment Italian government to fail, proving Five Star’s point about the haplessness of the present Italian elite, as well as its subservience to Brussels (for which read Berlin) over the economic issues that truly matter.

 The Italians must hold elections by February 2018. According to today’s polling, the most likely outcome is that Five Star win a plurality of the seats in parliament, but that the establishment parties of the left and right band together—in an unnatural, unsustainable coalition—not accomplishing much of anything in terms of structural economic reform. At this point, just a few years down the road, Five Star could well find itself in power. A referendum on Italy staying in the euro would be sure to follow.

 As in France, Italian populism is powered by the obvious failure of political elites to enact structural reforms leading to a steady two percent yearly rate of growth. Short of this, in German eyes, the European project has only two or three years to go before the real existential political crisis of populism hits, calling into question the survival in its current form of the European Union itself.

 It is in this policy context of looming existential political crisis for the EU that the Trump administration’s dramatic policy about-face on Brussels must be viewed. Frankly, it could not come at a worse time for Berlin, with the whole EU edifice noticeable wobbling, due to the rise of populism, Brexit, the endemic euro crisis and the unresolved tensions arising out of the refugee crisis.

 In German eyes, if ever there is a time for American support now would seem to be the moment. Instead, the Trump White House is hostile toward a European project that America has supported for generations, just at the very moment unstinting support is called for by Atlanticist Germans such as Chancellor Merkel. Over the EU, America has morphed from steadfast ally to at best, hostile onlooker.

 Conclusion: New words and new thinking are needed to describe the world

 Words matter, and in the new multipolar era we find ourselves in, it is time we learn again to use them correctly. Simply put, the US and Germany are no longer allies in the Cold War sense of the term. No longer forced into lock-step loyalty by the unbending logic of the global bipolar system of US-Soviet domination, in our new multipolar world, it was always highly likely that US-German relations would loosen, as both sides have the relative luxury to disagree about more things more often.

 But far more than this is going on just now. Personally, ideologically and over the two basic transatlantic institutions (NATO and the EU), Berlin and Washington simply do not agree about either how the world works, or what should be done to tackle its many problems. While neither the US nor Germany are enemies, based on this undisputed reality it is hard to see how they can be called allies at the moment, either.

 And perhaps this new reality is the key to understanding how states must work together in our new shades-of-grey multipolar world. As the US-German case illustrates, far fewer countries will be outright enemies or fast friends as was the case in the simpler bygone era of 1945-1991. Instead, countries will more and more work together over specific areas and over specific issues—based on shared interests—with all but a precious few countries (for the US say, Britain as lock step ally and ISIS as implacable enemy) sitting somewhere on the continuum between friend and foe.

 The new era that evolving US-German ties illuminates requires a new vocabulary for looking at how and why and when states will actually work together. More importantly, after decades of ossified geopolitical analysis, it requires new thinking to make sense of the fascinating, perplexing world we now find ourselves in.

 Published in Aspenia Italia, April 2017.