Trump’s Divide and Conquer

New Europe's biggest fan. Picture source: Reuters.

US President Donald Trump used his visit to Poland, where he received a warm welcome, to score points against Germany before he takes part in the G20 summit in Hamburg.

But in a major address in Warsaw, he also criticized Russia for its “destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere” and specifically reaffirmed US commitment to NATO’s Article 5, which obliges the allies to respond to an armed attack on any member.

Mr. Trump’s harsher tone against Russia comes after last month’s move by the US Senate to toughen sanctions on Russia and to include any companies that provide goods or services to support Russian “energy export pipelines.”

“Given his track record, Mr. Trump will undoubtedly try to deepen the EU’s internal divisions, by playing its eastern flank against its western members.”

Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister

That measure threatened many German firms taking part in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany and drew a sharp protest from German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who said it violated European energy sovereignty and was a brutal effort to promote US interests.

In his Warsaw speech, Mr. Trump forcefully affirmed this view by announcing that the US is ready to supply liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Poland with the aim of becoming a major exporter of LNG and supplanting Russia as Europe’s source of natural gas.

The announcement was a broadside against Germany’s energy industry, which is closely allied with the Russian gas conglomerate, Gazprom, the builder of Nord Stream 2.

The sharper tone against Russia was part of a threefold attack on Germany that Mr. Trump made in his Polish visit. He also praised Poland for meeting its NATO pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense – implicitly criticizing those members like Germany that fail to do so – and pushed other thorny European Union issues such as immigration.

It is all part of what many see as the US effort, dating back to US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to set the “new Europe” in eastern and central Europe against the “old Europe” in the West, led by Germany.

“Given his track record, Mr. Trump will undoubtedly try to deepen the EU’s internal divisions, by playing its eastern flank against its western members,” former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt wrote this week in a Handelsblatt op-ed.

During his Polish visit, Mr. Trump also took part in a meeting of leaders from the former communist countries and Austria under the aegis of the Three Seas Initiative, which was launched last year to form a counterweight in economic cooperation to EU efforts focused on Western Europe.

“He wants to pay back the peevish Western Europe by first visiting the modest periphery.”

Daily newspaper “Rzeczpospolita (Republic)”

The meeting paralleled Mr. Trump’s first visit to a foreign country in May, when he visited Saudi Arabia and met there with Saudi King Salman and other leaders from the region. Shortly after that meeting, the Gulf states cut ties with Qatar, accusing that sheikhdom of sheltering terrorists.

Another parallel to the Riyadh trip was the conclusion of a major arms deal. During the US president’s visit, Poland signed a contract for delivery of the Patriot missile defense system, a much smaller transaction than the $110 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia agreed to during Mr. Trump’s visit there.

The US president, in short, made every effort to encourage the Poles in their EU stance. “Poland is the heart of Europe,” he told the cheering crowd in Warsaw’s Krasinski Square. “The American people love Poland.”

He praised the resilience and courage of the Polish people in resisting the onslaught they suffered from both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II. For that and resistance to other travails in its history, Mr. Trump hailed Poland “as an example for others who seek freedom and who wish to summon the courage and the will to defend our civilization.”

Mr. Trump is in sync with the conservative nationalist government in Poland, sharing its penchant for protectionism, its skepticism regarding immigration and climate change, and its disdain for critical media and unfavorable judges.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Trump’s enthusiastic support emboldens Poland in its confrontational stance with the EU over these issues. Certainly Polish President Andrzej Duda felt that the US president’s choice to visit Poland before meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel “strengthens Poland’s position.”

But the daily newspaper “Rzeczpospolita (Republic),” even though it is thought to be close to the government, sounded a more skeptical note about Mr. Trump.

“He wants to pay back the peevish Western Europe by first visiting the modest periphery,” the newspaper said. “We should guard against too much obsequiousness. That doesn’t bring us Europeans any further. Because after Mr. Trump’s departure, we will still be back in our Europe.”


Mathias Brüggmann is the head of Handelsblatt’s foreign affairs desk. To contact the author: brueggmann@handelsblatt.com

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