Today is the day it could all go wrong for Boris Johnson — President Trump is due to arrive in London. To say that Trump is unpopular in the United Kingdom would be an understatement. Earlier this year, a YouGov poll showed that two-thirds of Britons had a negative opinion of him, compared with just 11 percent who felt that way about his predecessor, Barack Obama.
A month ago, YouGov asked 3,729 British adults: “Do you think getting President Trump’s endorsement is helpful or unhelpful for British politicians?” One in 10 thought it would be “fairly helpful” or “very helpful”; 15 percent said “fairly unhelpful,” and 39 percent “very unhelpful.”
The last time Trump referred to the prime minister was on the Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage’s LBC radio show on Halloween, when he called him a “fantastic man” and said the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would take the country “into such bad places” if he emerged as prime minister on December 13. Trump went on to say that “under certain aspects” of Johnson’s Brexit deal “we can’t make a trade deal with the UK.”
The Labour leader can only hope for more of the same today. In his dreams, Trump not only endorses Johnson but also proposes the privatization of the National Health Service as part of a US-UK (pronounced “you suck”) trade agreement.
Trump’s reason for being in London is not to salvage Corbyn’s campaign, but to attend a NATO meeting. Now, if Trump is unpopular in Britain, he is positively detested on the Continent. The overwhelming majority of Germans had confidence in Obama; just 10 percent feel that way about Trump, according to Pew Research. His numbers are even worse in France and Spain.
“Whose side should your country take in a dispute between the United States and Russia?” asked the European Council on Foreign Relations in a poll published in September. In every NATO member surveyed, with the sole exception of Poland, the majority favored neutrality. Repeatedly since running for president, Trump has cast doubt on the future of the Atlantic alliance. Last week, as if to fuel the fire, CNN ran the headline: “Trump administration to cut its financial contribution to NATO.”
This was, as Trump would say, fake news. In reality, a deal had been reached between NATO members to reduce the US contribution to NATO’s small ($2.5 billion) central budget and to increase the contribution of the Europeans, especially Germany. This is a sop to Trump, whose reason for resenting NATO is the decades-old and entirely justified American complaint that the Europeans don’t pay their fair share of the cost of defending their own continent.
Fact: Despite repeated US protests, only six European NATO members (among them the UK) spend more than 2 percent of GDP on defense, while America spends just over 3.4 percent.
Last month President Emmanuel Macron of France gave an interview to The Economist in which he referred to “the brain death of NATO." Asked for his view of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which binds members to regard an attack on any member as an attack on all members, Macron replied: “I don’t know, but what will Article 5 mean tomorrow? Will [Trump] be prepared to activate solidarity? If something happens at our borders?”
If this question does not get answered one way or another in 2020, it seems likely it will get answered within the next four years should Trump be reelected president next November. With the House of Representatives likely still in Democratic hands, the incentives would be, as usual in second terms, for the president to focus on foreign policy. That is a thought to freeze the blood, for this — as former national security adviser John Bolton recently warned — would be “America First” unbound.
For most of his first term, Trump has been held in check by men with national security experience. Bolton was one; the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is another. The other erstwhile “adults in the room," James Mattis and HR McMaster, are now my colleagues at the Hoover Institution.
If reelected, Trump would give free rein to his isolationist instincts and — perhaps just a dangerous — his oligarchical tendency to mix his own private interests with US national security. If you were shocked by Trump’s pressure on the Ukrainian president to dig for dirt on Joe Biden, or if you share Bolton’s suspicion that Trump’s lenient treatment of his Turkish counterpart is connected with the Trump Organization’s interests in Istanbul, then brace yourself for more and worse.
The leaders of Russia, Turkey, and North Korea would certainly rejoice at a new Trump victory. Only China and perhaps Iran might have cause to worry, as the president’s animosity toward those countries seems unlikely to diminish in a second term. To appreciate just why all this should worry Europeans, I recommend you revisit the interview between Vladimir Putin and the Financial Times in June.
Asked which world leader he most admired, Putin gave the startling reply: “Peter the Great.” Among the territories Peter added during his reign (1682-1725) to the Russian empire as a result of victories over Poland and Sweden were Kyiv (the Ukrainian capital), Ingria (the area around St. Petersburg), Livonia (the northern half of modern Latvia, and the southern half of modern Estonia), Estonia (the rest of modern Estonia), and a chunk of Karelia (sometimes called “Old Finland”).
Trump’s visit to the UK fills Johnson with trepidation. But it is the westward moves of Putin we really need to worry about.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.