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How Europe should negotiate with Donald Trump

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Because it wasn’t profane or even vivid, the most telling statement Donald Trump has made since leaving office didn’t hold the world’s attention. Asked in a Fox News interview last summer whether he would defend Taiwan with force, he said the island, which makes a fortune from semiconductors, “took our business”.

A non sequitur? Perhaps. A vulgar thing to mention given the life and death stakes? That too. But what an insight into a mind. If it were film dialogue, we’d salute the writing: the respect for the “show, don’t tell” rule of characterisation.

Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, is, to a degree that even his closest observers struggle to fathom, transactional. And not in a shrewd way. He inhabits a world before David Ricardo, if not before Adam Smith, in which wealth is understood as a cake that nations compete for a cut of. More for thee means less for me.

If the US runs a current account deficit with China, ipso facto it is losing. If it foots a disproportionate share of the Nato bill, it is a sucker. Don’t bother reciting all that America gets in return. (If Vladimir Putin had collective defence arrangements on another continent, the alt-right would hail it as “strategic depth”, not knock it as a burden.) To deal with Trump, first accept his zero-sum view of things as unshakeable.

This leaves Europe in a worse and better predicament than some think. Trump would be willing to sell it out for a buck. But he can be persuaded not to for a buck, too. If the continent spends more on defence — it has made a start — his main grievance with Nato really does fall away. In other words, when Trump grumbles about “delinquent” allies, he doesn’t mean something wider or deeper or grander. It isn’t contempt for the west or admiration for predatory dictators talking. Those views, even if he has them, are marginal next to his eternal conviction that America is being ripped off.

The challenge for big thinkers in the Trump age is to accept that here is someone immersed in the bathos of accounts and invoices. But if that mental breakthrough can be made, he becomes a bit less daunting. Trump has — in the non-corrupt sense — a price.

And not an extortionate one either. The other thing to remember about Trump is that he wants to declare victory in a negotiation. To that end, he doesn’t insist on the hardest terms. In 2018, he settled for a revised version of the North American Free Trade Agreement — achieving some demands, letting others go — instead of quitting it outright.

In 2020, he signed what he called a “historical” trade truce with China. In return for what? An unenforceable commitment to purchase an additional $200bn in US goods. His amour propre is double-edged, spurring him to start quarrels but also to settle them on whatever terms he can spin as his own. It is hard to know which offends him more, in fact: being the mug in a deal, or being considered impotent to amend it.

Would Trump, in the event of an attack on Nato, defend the allies? Given that Article 5, which sets out the principle of collective defence, has been invoked all of once in 75 years, that is an intrinsically hopeless question to answer. The more practical one is how to stop him leaving or underfunding Nato in the meantime, or undermining it with his rhetoric. The answer is to take him at his word, and address the cash question. It isn’t code for something else.

A financial gesture would go farther with him (“Look what I got out of the Europeans”) than his outward intransigence suggests. “Transactional” is just a harsh word for “negotiable”. Trump is much the worst president in the Nato era, but an ideological anti-liberal and Kremlinophile, of which there is no lack on the US right, would be harder to bind into the alliance.

In one of the great Washington films, Being There, people read important thoughts into the utterances of a simple-minded man. Trump isn’t simple-minded, but his followers and his enemies alike put a philosophical weight on him — as saviour of Christendom, or 1930s fascist — that he doesn’t bear. His concerns aren’t at that level of abstraction.

Even his grievance with China is narrower, more trade-centred, than that of much of Washington now. Trained in ideas, the political class sees in grand terms — “authoritarian” this, “isolationist” that — a man who is, at bottom, a miser. The ultimate rule of negotiating with Trump is that no one will be worse at it than an intellectual.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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