Trump's Realpolitik Policy for NATO and East Europe



by Andrew Rasiulis

Frontline Defence
June 6, 2017

As the Trump Presidency moves past its first 100 days, the aims of its policies are beginning to take shape. Much has been written, and continues to be written about the bombast and noise emanating from the President's tweet account. The aim of this piece is to see beyond the tweets and discern the reality of Trump's policies, specifically as they apply to NATO and Eastern Europe.

Observers and policy practitioners alike are focused on two recent significant Summits in which President Trump met for the first time with some of his chief international counterparts as an assembled group. The first meeting was the NATO Summit in Brussels on 25 May, followed by that of the G7 in Sicily the next day. These two events provided the showcase for the emergence of US foreign and defence policy as it is focused on Europe.

What then was the result? From Trump's tweets we had read that NATO was obsolete, although this has now been adjusted. NATO is once again relevant, as it is taking on a greater role in the war against terrorism. The Russia factor and Trump's relationship with Putin is a matter of great speculation. Both within the political halls and corridors of Washington as well as the international stage at large. Should US tax payers be concerned about the ongoing situation in Ukraine?

These factors are directly linked with key international developments taking place concurrently in Syria, Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, Yemen and terrorist activity across much of northern Africa. How Trump views US interests within each of these challenges will affect and influence the specifics of his policies for NATO and Eastern Europe. What then is the de facto distinction in this regard between the policies of the Obama administration and that of Trump?

In macro terms, one may argue that the foreign and defence policy of Obama was underwritten by a philosophy sympathetic to a moralistic, value and rules based liberal internationalism, commensurate with US interests. While Trump's emerging policies are not devoid of these tenets, there is a marked emphasis on the priority of US interests. It may be argued that Trump's policies reflect more the principles of Realpolitik, as opposed to moral values.

In this light, it is of interest to reflect on the policy basis which girded that of Great Britain in the 19th century. Like the United States today, Great Britain, as one of the great powers of the era, was constantly focused on balancing off the interests of competing powers. The famous quote of Lord Palmerston is worth recalling when attempting to understand the evolving nature of Trump's international outlook, specifically with regard to Russia and China. In a speech to the House of Commons on 1 March, 1848, Palmerston acknowledged the importance of the principle of justice in Britain's foreign policy, but went on to say: "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow".

Lord Palmerston's prescription may also underline President Trump's policy basis. On NATO, his recognition of the importance and relevance played by the Alliance is clear and was in fact emphasized in Brussels. As background to the NATO Summit, it is important to note that the US commitments made pursuant to the Wales and Warsaw Summits are being fully implemented. Speculation on the future relationship with Russia notwithstanding.

The US force presence in Europe is growing in accordance with the shift from the policy of assurance (Wales) to that of deterrence (Warsaw). The second nine month back to back rotation of the US Army's Brigade Combat Team (BCT) will roll out this fall with the deployment of the Second Armoured Brigade of the First Infantry Division, replacing that of the Third BCT from the Fourth Infantry Division. (Army Times, 27 April, 2017) These US military assets form part of Operation Atlantic Resolve in which US forces exercise with Allied forces from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south. While the BCT is rotationally based in Poland, the US maintains an overall force posture of 30k troops in Europe. It is important to contrast this figure to the 300k troops the US maintained in Europe during the Cold War.

While US relations with Russia are described as being the lowest since the end of the Cold War, they are not as low as during the Cold War. There is no longer a zero sum ideological battle. Rather, there are both competing and common interests with Russia. The resolution of the war in Ukraine and the battle against ISIL in Syria and Iraq are examples of the intersection of interests. To this mix must be added the role of China, specifically in dealing with challenge of North Korea.

As expected, President Trump will pressed his NATO counterparts to take on more of the burden of their common defence and security interests. The two percent of defence spending of GDP target goal was affirmed.  The discussion and debate remains in terms of how best to implement the goal of burden sharing by each NATO member. There was common ground on increasing NATO's role in the fight against terrorism. The role of Russia in resolving the war in Ukraine and of cooperation with Russia in countering ISIL and terrorism was discussed as part of the complexity and intersection of international interests.

The Trump administration is emerging to be more pragmatic and less ideological on how it pursues its resultant policy with regard Russia in accordance with its understanding of US interests."  The primary tenet of Trump's foreign and defence policy, described as "the America First" approach, is to protect and advance US vital interests.  

The best summary of this Realpolitik approach was described in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (30 May 2017) by H.R. MacMaster and Gary D. Cohn when they wrote: "The President embarked on this first foreign trip with a clear eyed outlook that the world is not a 'global community' but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and business engage and compete for advantage […] Rather than deny this elemental nature of international relations, we embrace it".
This is in marked contrast to traditional liberal internationalist outlook of President Obama, and to Canada's policy as clearly affirmed by Minister Freeland in her statement to the House of Commons on 6 June 2017.  Whether in the context of NATO and Eastern Europe or the world at large, President Trump's emerging policy is to use American power, diplomatic, economic and military to promote US interests.

Andrew Rasiulis is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Image credit: Independent

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