It is now one month after Trump’s swearing in ceremony and while it is certainly far too early to draw any specific conclusions about his foreign policy, it may not be unreasonable to try to at least sketch out the contours of what we have observed so far. Before doing that, it is worthwhile to notice some of the domestic conditions and constraints that are likely to influence foreign policy making in the new administration for better or worse. These include the president’s campaign promises and firmly expressed preferences, as well as, steps taken to date.
Without a doubt the potential Trump turn toward a Russia-friendly foreign policy has been the major concern among foreign-political observers in and outside the United States. Trump’s frequent if not always well articulated statements of support for president Putin have been subject to considerable attention and worries about a possible betrayal of NATO’s unanimity of purpose in opposing Putin’s aggressive policies in Ukraine, Crimea and elsewhere. These concerns can now be put to rest. In her first speech to the UN Security Council, the American ambassador, Nikki Haley, did not mince words in describing Crimea as Ukrainian territory and announcing that Western sanctions on Russia would not be lifted until it is restored to Ukraine. This was followed by numerous official statements by U.S. officials, such as Pentagon chief, Gen Mattis, and vice-president, Mike Pence in support of NATO at the Munich security conference and in Brussels. This is not to say that contentious issues between the NATO allies have gone away, but it is now clear that the feared unilateral Trump ‘deal’ with Putin was never really in the cards. Perhaps the clearest sign of this sobering reality for Moscow is the evidence that the Kremlin had ordered the downgrading of the Trump ‘promise’ and his ubiquitous presence on Russian TV has largely disappeared in the past two weeks.
This leaves the issue of European contributions to NATO’s budget as the main point of contention in the alliance. U.S. government representatives in the recent flurry of security confabs in Europe have been quite demonstrative in their expressions of support for NATO and the European Union as a whole. At the same time, they have all without fail mentioned the imperative of a European commitment to higher defense spending if the alliance were to remain a key foreign-political priority to the United States. While the European allies are generally in public agreement of the need to spend more, the reality is often different. Generally speaking, the Eastern European part of the alliance, which has a more acute threat perception coming from Russia, has been much more willing to raise their spending to match commitments and both Poland and Estonia, for instance, have reached the promised 2% of GDP in military spending. Not so, the Western European members of NATO. Germany, for example, recently announced with great fanfare that it was increasing defense spending by 2.1 billion euro in 2017. Yet, even this increase would have brought its defense spending to only 1.22% of GDP and this at a time when the Germans enjoy a current account surplus of 8.5% of GDP or some 250 billion euro. Should this continue, serious tensions in the alliance will be difficult to avoid.
Bickering about defense budgets is certainly a nuisance that could and does undermine the remarkable Western security solidarity of the decades since WWII. Yet, the most serious challenge to the Euro-Atlantic alliance by far stems from the fundamental change of the geopolitical circumstances of NATO since the 1990s. The alliance was founded with a single raison d’etre and that was deterring Soviet aggression in Europe. The Soviet Union no longer exists and however threatening Putin’s Russia is, it is nowhere near the scale of the former Soviet threat to Europe. In the meantime, of the rising challenges to American security, such as terrorism, Middle East turmoil and China’s hegemonic ambitions, none are within the exclusively European purview of NATO. This is what Trump probably had in mind when he called NATO obsolete. To the Eastern European nations that are subject to Putin’s neo-imperialist aggressive designs and sabre-rattling, NATO is far from obsolete, but it needs to be infused with a new strategic mission in order to acquire a renewed legitimacy among its Western European and American constituencies. The struggle against terrorism and the radical Islam that undergirds it and threatens western societies on both sides of the Atlantic is by far the best candidate for a new and vitally important NATO mission.
By Alex Alexiev