WASHINGTON — After many weeks of claiming, dishonestly, that European allies "owe us a tremendous amount of money for many years back" — in fact, Europeans spend far more money on European defense than does the United States — and after referring to NATO members as "delinquent" and worse, President Donald Trump appears to have handed America's European allies an ultimatum: Pay up, spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on the military, do it fast — or the United States will pull out. We can "go it alone," he told them, by some accounts.
During the news conference he gave afterward, Trump even claimed Europeans had caved in to his demands: They had agreed to reach the 2 percent target faster, he said, and they could possibly increase it to 4 percent in the future. This claim was immediately disputed by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who pointed to the summit statement, which says nothing of the sort. The NATO secretary-general evaded the 4 percent question. The British and German leaders canceled planned news conferences altogether.
And no wonder: It isn't easy to know what to say. For the question now facing America's allies in Europe is both fundamental and unanswerable. It is this: Are Trump's threats, as well as the lies and hyperbole that accompany them, just tactics intended to strengthen the Western alliance? Or does Trump actually want the alliance to die?
If the former is true, then the allies should probably take Trump's demands seriously. They should ignore his bluster, turn the other cheek, let him take credit for spending targets set by the Obama administration and move on. Given the genuine threats of Russian aggression from the east, as well as the terrorism threat from the south, the long-standing U.S. demand for Europe to spend more is valid. Many European nations clearly should invest more in hard military power. Europeans need the United States to stay in Europe. On the ground, the alliance is healthier and more cooperative than it has ever been. If America's allies have to listen to Trump dissembling a few times a year — if they have to let him take credit for resolving fake crises — then maybe that's a price they should pay.
Trump is becoming more radical, and more rude, with every European summit.
But what if Trump is playing a different game altogether? Remember, Trump has been calling NATO a waste of money for decades. "America has no vital interest" in Europe, he wrote in 2000: "Their conflicts are not worth American lives. Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually. The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous. And these are clearly funds that can be put to better use." During his election campaign, he refused to reaffirm any commitment to NATO's Article 5 security guarantee. During his first NATO summit last year, he again refused to reaffirm Article 5, though an administration official had promised he would. He has repeatedly gone out of his way to insult NATO allies, including the British prime minister as well as the German chancellor, even accusing Angela Merkel — in what looks like a classic case of projection, in advance of his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin — of allowing Germany to be "controlled" by Russia.
But if Trump's game is to destabilize and undermine the Western alliance, and possibly even to break it up, then it would be a great mistake for Europeans to turn the other cheek. Instead, they should actively lobby those in Congress and at the Pentagon who support them. They should probably prepare alternatives, such as an immediate agreement on new, all-European military structures, including a European army. They should increase their spending, with an eye toward putting together their own command and control systems. They should think about responses to American blackmail, because if Trump wants to play off trade against security, then Europe, as the United States' biggest trading partner, is in a good position to bargain. U.S. companies have privileges in Europe that they don't enjoy in China or Russia. That could change.
Such an outcome would, of course, be very bad for everyone. We would all be poorer and less safe. Europeans would certainly have to invest far more in defense than even Trump suggests; the long-standing assumption that no Europeans other than Britain and France will obtain nuclear weapons might be revisited; the peace of central Europe would be threatened. The United States' own ability to project power into the Middle East and Asia from its lost European bases would be markedly diminished. All this, of course, is why Russian media is gushing excitedly about this dispute.
But Trump is becoming more radical, and more rude, with every European summit. If his real intention is to smash the Western alliance, then the dangers will be even greater if Europeans don't draw the right conclusions in time.
The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.
This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.
In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.
The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.
A popular uprising may be inevitable
The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?
Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.
The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.
But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.
Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.
For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.
The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.
Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.
A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.
In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.
Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.
File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020
Generals in suits
Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.
For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.
This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.
Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.
Demands of the revolution
The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.
First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.
Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.
The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.
Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.
Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.
The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.
Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.
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