Fear in Washington of a more independent EU foreign policy – ex-CIA analyst

Transatlantic relations between the US and the EU are in turmoil amid uncertainty over Brexit and calls for a European army. Is this just temporary tension or a major divide in the making? We spoke to Mathew Burrows, a veteran CIA analyst and former National Intelligence counselor who’s taking part in the EMERTECH 2018 Conference.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Mathew Burrows, thanks a lot for being with us today, it’s great to meet you in person, cause I know we’ve done this over the satellite. Lots to talk about, things have changed from the last time we spoke. We’ll start with the United Kingdom, the future of the Brexit deal is still uncertain, and the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that the United States will keep its very special relationship with the United Kingdom even if the hard Brexit is the case, is the scenario. And I remember, when the Trump was in the UK, he was actually supporting the rebellious Conservatives who are calling for hard Brexit. So is a no-deal right now something that is convenient for Washington, is that what Washington really wants? Why? 

Mathew Burrows: No, I don’t think that they would want a no-deal, simply because it causes a huge amount of confusion. It could tip… It certainly will tip Britain into recession, but it could tip also Europe. And, you know, we’re on the edge, there are a lot of economists who believe we’re headed into a recession, so this could be a factor that tips or helps to tip everybody. From that standpoint, Washington doesn’t want it. 

SS: Trump’s remarks kind of undermining the British Prime Minister, they don’t really fit into this special relationship, true friendship narrative that the UK and the United States have shared for decades and decades. How close and how special has the relationship is the relationship with Trump at the helm of America, really? 

MB: How special is it with the British? 

SS: Yeah. 

MB: I think, first, I’m not sure that the special relationship will be that special after they leave the EU, because for Americans, Britain was the entryway into the European Union, both in an economic sense, but also in the political sense, because they represented the US views at the table, and the US is not at the table in the European Union. 

SS: But to be fair, America and Britain shared a special relationship even before the EU was created. 

MB: Yes, but… And we’ll always share those values, and lots of Americans feel very close to Britain, that’s where, you know, if they start on a European trip, they tend to go to London before they go to the other capitals. But I don’t believe it’s quite as special. I mean, the cultural values will be there, and the closeness that way, but not as much in the political sense. And then, the trade deal that the US negotiates is probably going to be pretty hard for some Brits to take, because the US will demand the opening of their agricultural sector. So there… You know, the US is not going to give them a soft deal. 

SS: So Trump’s peculiar approach to his overseas counterparts, whether it’s London, whether it’s Brussels, – is just his personal thing, or is this really, right now, a truly new, lasting vector in America’s foreign policy? 

MB: Well, his, kind of… Let’s say erratic behaviour, where he got on the radio, when he was in Britain, and supported the Prime Minister’s opponents… I think that will go away, because US Presidents try to be pretty consistent, pretty predictable, Trump is the opposite of that. But I think there is a new attitude in the US, largely from a degree that the US is much more oriented to China, and China is the peer competitor. Europe, more and more, should be on its own. Now, that’s not to say that the NATO alliance is going to, you know, disappear, but, you know, the US… Would his, both sides of the aisle would share his view that the Europeans need to do more for their defense. 

SS: Alright, so we’ll get to defense and NATO, but what you’re saying, basically, is that under disguise of this erratic behaviour, Trump is actually a gateway to what really the Americans want in terms of their relations with Europe? 

MB: Yes. 

SS: Okay. Well, then, there is not just, of course, the British Prime Minister, but Trump and the French President, Emmanuel Macron, have also had somewhat of a spat. Trump criticised the French government’s policies in light of the clashes that were challenging his country, and the French Foreign Minister was like, just leave our nation be and back off. Can Trump’s Twitter diplomacy actually fuel more anti-Macron protest in France? What do you think? 

MB: No, I think… You know, I don’t think that the gilets jaunes, as they’re called, yellow vests actually like Trump that much. You know, they are opposed to Macron, but I think, you know, he… Trump has much more connection with the British Brexiteers. On the continent, he doesn’t have that rapport. And people feel largely, in most countries in Europe, Italy may be an exception, because he does have some connections there with the populists, but for the most part, he’s not that well-liked.        

SS: So why is it that what started between Trump and Macron, something that they wanted to present as a close friendship, actually turned into a series of jabs and insults? 

MB: Well, Macron had an idea that he could turn the President away from leaving the Paris climate agreement, from, particularly when he was on with his flattery effort, to turn the President away from his commitment to get out of the Iran nuclear agreement, the JCPOA. And that was a big defeat for Macron. When he went to Washington, that was his number one objective, to try to change that. And then, even after that, he wanted to try to get Trump not to sanction the European companies that were doing business with Iran. US has taken a very hard line on that, they’ve also taken a very hard line on the European Union trying to develop a facility to allow their companies to trade without getting sanctions. So from that standpoint, all of his efforts failed. I think, when Macron made this comment that we want a European army in part because of China, Russia, and then he added the US at the end. For Trump, he wants the Europeans actually to do more for their defence, but always under a US umbrella. I mean, Macron’s comments, which were very much in line with de Gaulle’s feeling in France, nevertheless looked like it was opposing the US. 

SS: So, but, you know, it’s one thing for America to want a more independent Europe, but it’s another thing for the President to openly disparage his international counterparts, supporting ones who challenge them. What’s in it for Trump, what’s the benefit for America in doing so? 

MB: It’s for his supporters, to show the US can throw around its weight, US will not take any guff from, you know, its allies, and that the US can berate, has the freedom to berate, but they can’t answer the US back. And for a lot of his supporters, that’s what they want from a US President. They believe other US Presidents have cowered too much in front of the Europeans or Asian allies, done too much… 

SS: Really? I mean, it’s one thing to think so in terms of China, because it’s a real competitor, even Russia, because ideologically, we don’t stand together in the same line, but Europe has always been, like, a century-long partner, and hasn’t really challenged America on anything, like, really, you take on that? 

MB: Well, for his supporters, you know, standing up, they feel the US has been, you know, hurt itself because it has bent over backwards for its allies. And so, this is a great thing, the US standing up. 

SS: I think a lot of allies would actually see it the other way around. 

MB: Oh, I totally agree, I’m not… I’m trying to explain how his supporters see it. You know, this is America first, and that is, you know, it that we should be able to tell everybody off, but not expect anybody to come back and criticise us. 

SS: So this idea of a European army that you mentioned a couple times has received renewed backing by Germany and by France, and obviously that’s all in the wake of Brexit. And Trump doesn’t really like it, he feels quite sceptical about this plan. If brought to life, do you feel the new EU army could actually make NATO redundant?   

MB: Probably not. I mean, it’s a stretch for them first to get an army together, but I think what that would do, which US, not just Trump, but US policymakers would fear, is make their foreign policy a lot more independent of the US. It’s already moving in that direction, just because of Trump’s anti-multilateralism, anti-JCPOA, all those issues. But it would make the Europeans, I think, feel that they can set their own policies, without necessarily reference to the US. 

SS: Why does it bother Trump so much, why isn’t he thrilled about the European army, I mean, having that would surely take a load off American military’s shoulders, and isn’t that what he wanted in the first place? 

MB: For a lot of even non-Trump foreign policy elite, any sort of talk of a European army appears to them as a threat to NATO. There was a whole argument in the 1990s, when the European Union, with Maastricht and others began to talk about a foreign policy, European foreign policy, European defence policy, and people in Washington reacted very strongly. Because the worry is that Europeans would get together without the US, make some decisions and then come into NATO as a collective body and make, you know, force the US to agree to a European position.  
SS: So if the European Union actually stops relying on Americans for security, would that make the other areas of the American-European relationship more complicated, like trade?
 

MB: Yes, I mean, for a lot of traditional foreign policy members of the elite there’s this bargain that we have a strong defense agreement, and then we also overlay this with a strong economic agreement, and the two need to go side by side. So, yes, if the US may play more hardball… In recent times even on the economic side this has been very difficult relationship because there are differences, and we have different ideas on GMOs, we have different ideas on the agricultural sector - Europeans tend to protect theirs more and we would like to open it up. 

SS: Just recently the European Union proposed to deal with this international trade dispute under the WTO. America has rejected it, and I know that in the past Trump called the WTO body useless and counterproductive. What does the American attitude mean for the future of the WTO, does Washington want to just freeze things the way they are now? 

MB: I think, other than Trump who again is somewhat erratic on this, most American policy makers would like the WTO reformed, particularly to deal with Charter. And they would also want it updated because increasingly trade is getting to be more digital, and that was really not part of the scene when the WTO was put together… 

SS: So it doesn’t have that much to do with the Europeans? I was thinking that America could actually get more concessions from the EU by threatening to withdraw from WTO… 

MB: I don’t think that would play in Europe - that sort of threat. What could actually bring the EU and the US together is more the reform of the WTO to attack what they see as unfair trading practices by China - and both Europeans and Americans have complained about China. 

SS: But what is the worst case scenario - if we could imagine that America withdraws from the WTO - for Europe and the WTO? What would it mean for the organisation? Will it collapse? After all, you’ve said it yourself, there are other countries to trade with, like China... 

MB: I think, it would collapse. I don’t think the Europeans alone, even if China says it wants to stay in the WTO… I think what you’re seeing anyway is more regionalisation of trade. Even before Trump President Obama had this idea for regional agreements - one with Europe, TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) with Asian allies… You know, we are far away from the global trade agreements that we had a decade or so ago.      

SS: Interestingly, one of the concerns the EU and the US share is China’s economic expansionism. Do you think the issue of China could pull the EU and Americans back together? 

MB: One thing, China has influence in some east European countries - Hungary being one, Greece and others who are getting a lot of benefits from China - and Europeans in Brussels are very worried about that. So there’s some division there. But I think, yes, so long as they don’t want to be dragged into an American conflict with China, and they don’t like the kind of blustery, very anti-China insults that sometimes Trump and some of his people engage in and would like to push China back a few decade to where it’s not a threat, - they don’t like that sort of attitude. China on its side, I think, would like to strengthen its ties with Europe to avoid a common front that would also include Japan. 

SS: Funny you’ve mentioned Japan because this whole Beijing investments thing is coming under so much scrutiny in the EU that it reminds me of the 1980s when there was the very similar fear of the Japanese investment, “oh, the Japanese are buying everything”... I don’t know if we can compare the scale of Japan and China, but it’s very much like what was going on with this anti-Japan hysteria economically in the 1980s. Is it justified to fear China so much, or is it just going to go away like the Japan fear in the 1980s? 

MB: I don’t think it’s going to go quite away because I think Japan had a long period of decline just about the time when people were worried it was going to take over the world. I think, China is a much bigger economic power, much more long-term. I think, you have to live with that, and there’s lots of advantages that the Europeans can get from it as well as the Americans - and have gotten from China. So we need to .. Certainly some of their trade practices - you can push back... 

SS: Do you think we should just give in to China? Because at this point you said Hungary and Greece are certainly enjoying great financial benefits from relationship with China… 

MB: They don’t have the ability to push back because they want the investments too much. But the rest - the European Union has the power to push back. 

SS: Everytime something comes up countries like Hungary and Greece are blocking EU resolutions condemning Beijing’s foreign policy. I mean, yes, we have this kind of anti-Chinese hysteria, but the Chinese influence in Europe so big that it goes as far as vetoing Brussels’ resolutions...

MB: Yes, but you have the member states like Germany and France to begin with who put restrictions on investments. You know, it’s one thing that China can invest in Hungary and Greece, but what they really want is German hi-tech companies because they want to learn from the Germans. So that’s the way of restricting. There’s an EU resolution that allows member states to begin to put investment controls on China.   

SS: So while the EU is locked in its trade dispute with China US and Chinese leaders are talking it out in terms of the trade war. What do you think will come out of it? Because Trump does that a lot, like, he first goes against something and then negotiates a new deal on his own terms… 

MB: I think, because China’s growth at the moment is beginning to soften, they are very worried about that for political reasons that they would want a deal. They also know that they rely on US for chips and other things, some of their companies, ZTE… so that they will make a deal. What I fear is that the lessons they will draw from this is that the US is determined not to allow them to continue to rise, and that they will make sure that in five years they will not be dependent on the US or anybody else for something like these vital tech inputs like chips, and, you know, what you’ll see is maybe not made in China in 2025 but it will certainly be made in China in 2035 because they are also looking at the rhetoric which is “we will never allow China to be better than we are”. 

SS: I want to talk a little bit about the recent report that you co-authored, and it actually points at further escalation between Russia and the West as one of the major geopolitical risks we are going to face in 2019. I mean, this escalation and these risks are rooted in people’s decisions, they aren’t inevitable - do you feel there’s any will in Washington to steer away from the collision course? 

MB: With Russia? 

SS: Yeah. 

MB: I think it will change, but I don’t see when it will change. 

SS: What would it take for it to change? 

MB: I think, one thing is a stronger President. President Trump has ceded all his powers on Russia to Congress who basically can determine when the sanctions come off. The President really doesn’t have that many powers. So I think you need a stronger President. And I think, you need maybe a Democrat coming in who gets elected so that they can turn the page on their defeat in 2016 and say that they defied all Russian interventions or whatever it’s time to actually talk… 

SS: But Democrats are right now even more adamantly anti-Russian than the Republicans. I don’t know if we can say that, but that’s my impression. 

MB: But you can get a leader that does have a different point of view… 

SS: Trump had a different point of view and look what’s happened to him - I mean, they almost ate him alive. 

MB: Yes, but this is a little bit like Nixon and China: the strongest anti-communist is the one that opens the door to relations with communist China. It will be the Democrats who can say: “Ok, we need to have relations because otherwise we’ll get into an arms race, and it will get worse.” Unfortunately, a casualty of this is probably going to be the New START because the timing doesn’t work. It expires February 2021 - it’s a  month after whoever is elected as the next President, either it’s Trump or the Democrat. 

SS: Alright, Mathew Burrows, thank you for this wonderful interview and for your insight. We wish you all the best. 

MB: Thank you very much, and sorry we don’t have better news to bring you. 

SS: Hopefully next time.