2. Oram: Watching Trump from Berlin

Updated

Oberbaumbrucke, Berlin: One of the bridges that divided but now unites the city. Photo: Rod Oram

Anywhere in the world is an uncomfortable place from which to watch Donald Trump threaten global prosperity and peace. But Germany, given its destruction and renaissance over the past 75 years, is a more distressing place than most.

On July 11, the day Trump was assailing the US’s NATO allies in Brussels, my wife and I were criss-crossing Berlin tracing the fading but never forgotten lines of the Berlin Wall. Past, present and future cohabit more vividly in this city than most.

Two years ago, we knew a very special family event would bring us to Germany in those early weeks in July. But with Trump’s subsequent election, his trip to Europe turned ours into a deeply personal reflection on the post-war world.

We and billions of others have benefitted from the US leadership that has helped promote democracy, peace and prosperity. We are painfully aware, though, how troubled that order is. Economies are stagnating, societies are shattering, ecosystems are degrading, and politics are ever-more poisonous. Massive, urgent reinvention is required. Trump, though, is a genius at destruction of the old order. But he is incapable of creating a new one.

As Martin Wolf, the Financial Times’s chief economics columnist wrote last week:

"In the postwar world, US policy had four attractive features: it had appealing core values; it was loyal to allies who shared those values; it believed in open and competitive markets; and it underpinned those markets with institutionalised rules. This system was always incomplete and imperfect. But it was a highly original and attractive approach to the business of running the world. For those who believe humanity must transcend its petty differences, these principles were a start.

"Yet today the US president appears hostile to core American values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law; he feels no loyalty to allies; he rejects open markets; and he despises international institutions. He believes that might makes right. The Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin have might. He admires them. German chancellor Angela Merkel and UK prime minister Theresa May are decent women trying to lead democracies. He abuses them."

On July 12, Trump began the day in further battle with his NATO allies in Brussels and ended it at a banquet at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire hosted by May. The choice of place was rich in irony. Winston Churchill was born there. A year after helping lead the Allies to victory, he warned “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” Yet Trump, a huge fan of Churchill, is oblivious to the geopolitical realities then and now.

The purpose of the dinner was equally ironic. It was to promote trade between the US and UK. But Trump had already knee-capped May in his interview with the Sun. He said her strategy of a ‘soft’ Brexit was contrary to the advice he had given her. It would “kill” any chances of a US-UK free trade agreement. He denied making those comments, but the Sun produced the interview tape. In a rare example of tabloid rectitude, it showed the Sun was telling the truth and the US President was lying.

The following day, Friday the 13th, Trump was busy in and around London with the Queen, May, and members of the British military and intelligence services. But his interactions with them were as awkward and fractious as ever.

Those two days we were visiting various places in Berlin, admiring the likes of the reestablishment of the German parliament in the Reichstag, restoration of historic places such as the Brandenburg Gate and the massive redevelopment of areas such as Potsdamer Platz. Berlin is once again one of the great thriving, cosmopolitan cities of the world.

At the weekend, Trump flew to his Turnberry golf resort in Scotland. The place is one of the many mysteries of his business life, given his heavy and about-to-double investment in it, and its sharply loss-making performance so far.

His visit was the peg for a deeply researched investigation by the New Yorker of Trump’s abrupt shift in business strategy in the decade before he won the Presidency.

From clipping the ticket on other people’s developments by licensing his name to them, he suddenly spent more than US$400m on buying major properties, 14 of which he settled in cash. The investments included 12 golf courses and his US$43m share of the cost of the Trump Hotel in Washington. Yet Turnberry alone seemed to account for more than half the cash Trump had at the time.

Given Trump’s decades-long history of bankruptcies and business failures, he was shunned by mainstream banks and finance sources. He turned to new sources of money by doing deals with a number of people in Russia and other parts of the former USSR. The New Yorker article sheds new light on these, as does a Financial Times investigation of his C$500m Toronto hotel development backed by Russian money published the same week.

A war legacy

When Trump was in Scotland over the weekend and then in Helsinki on Monday at his summit with President Vladimir Putin, my wife and I were in Darmstadt. This small city south of Frankfurt has particular meaning for us.

Growing up in the UK, I was painfully aware of the RAF’s terror bombing raid with negligible strategic purpose the night of September 11/12, 1944. It destroyed much of the city, leaving 60 percent of its 110,000 inhabitants homeless. Over the course of the war, some 13,000 civilians, 12 percent of the population, were killed by Allied bombing raids.

A few years after the war, my American parents-in-law helped a young man from Darmstadt go to college in Texas, and to bring his hometown fiancee to the US so they could marry. Gerhard went on to have a long and distinguished academic career in the US. In his retirement he now spends some of his time back in Darmstadt.

When asked why they helped a German couple and a Japanese couple study in the US after the war, Bill and Betty would simply say they wanted to give them a hand. Bill, a bomber pilot in New Guinea, was shot down by the Japanese but he and the surviving members of his crew evaded capture thanks to the help of an Australian coast watcher.

Later Bill flew in the Berlin airlift and the Korean War, and was still flying jet fighters in the US air force reserves in the early days of the Vietnam War. In Tokyo in 1990, thanks to the help of US and Japanese military historians, he met and reconciled with the Japanese fighter pilot who had shot him down in New Guinea. Today at 97 he is one of the few WW II US bomber pilots alive.

America spawned the Marshall plan

The US made vast efforts to help Europe and Japan rebuild after the war, laying the foundations for the past seven decades of peace and prosperity for many people around the world. With other nations it created the United Nations, IMF, World Bank and, what is today the World Trade Organisation to help bring some order to global affairs.

One of the countless tiny things the US did to help rekindle culture and the arts in Germany was to help establish in 1946 the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Darmstadt – the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music.

It was for this festival my wife and I went to Darmstadt. We were there to hear a new composition by our daughter Celeste, which she was performing with a dozen of her musician friends from New Zealand, the US and Germany. In creating “another genealogy” for New Zealand music, the music theatre piece challenges us on today’s universal environmental, political, social and economic crises.

As the musicians were having their final rehearsal, Trump and Putin were speaking after their summit. Trump’s refusal to confront Putin on Russia’s many transgressions at home and abroad, and Trump’s own mendacious, narcissistic behaviour brought to mind a quote I’d read four days earlier at one of the Berlin Wall museums. It was from the writings of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose botching of his reforms of the USSR inadvertently but happily led to the reunification of Germany and Berlin.

“The 21st century will be a century either of total all-embracing crisis or of a moral and spiritual healing that will reinvigorate humankind. It is my conviction that all of us – all reasonable political leaders, all spiritual and ideological movements, all faiths – must help in this transition to a triumph of humanism and justice making the 21st century a century of a new human renaissance.”