international analysis and commentary

Trump, the Russian deal and Europe

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 Washington, Trumpland‘s chilly capital, and I mean really chilly. An icy wind is ruffling the identical jackets of all the civil servants (a few thousand) who are currently quitting the corridors of power. At the same time, the city is chilly (or maybe embarrassed) also in a psychological sense. No one in the various think tanks aligned on Massachusetts Avenue can tell you with any certainty what The Donald is planning to do in the foreign policy sphere. It is easier to say what he is not going to do: i.e. carry on as before.

All of our US interlocutors are agreed on the fact that Trump’s election marks the end of an era: The international system spawned by the end of the Cold War, with all its ups and downs, is being consigned to the history books for good. The United States is no longer going to be its prop, its mainstay. A political scientist of the “realist” persuasion told me in a lighthearted tone that this marks the end of the world of Davos with all of its rituals.  What is not clear, however, is what is now about to take its place. Could it be the era of deglobalisation?

Let us begin with the currently fashionable buzz word: Trump’s foreign policy is going to be “transactional.” What does that mean?  It means an approach based not on institutions, on principles, and on stable alliances so much as on ad hoc agreements, on temporary “deals”: It is the business method applied to diplomacy. A deal with an adversary – say, Putin’s Russia – may take precedence over the defense of an ally. What counts are the United States’ individual interests; the broader protection of the Western system with its liberal values and its more or less wobbly multilateral institutions carries less weight than before.

Now let us add a second word currently fashionable in Washington: Trump is going to be a “Jacksonian” president. According to Walter Russell Mead, a student of US foreign policy trends, this means a very specific mix of economic nationalism and of US military superiority, coupled with the rare and extremely selective use of force. The priority is to strengthen the domestic situation. The perception where the foreign front is concerned is that threats widely prevail over opportunities.

What unites these two aspects – a “transactional” foreign policy and a “Jacksonian” presidency – is the belief that power must be used for what it is.  Not for trying to change the world, for supporting the global architecture, or for exporting democracy (in accordance with the various visions or illusions of the 20th century) but for negotiating from a position of strength with adversaries and friends alike. It is an approach that we might call “neo-Westphalian”:  perfect for an international player such as Russia; possibly too simplistic for neo-Confucian China; but an approach with which Europe is going to have to reckon very seriously. Let us see why.

With Russia, Trump’s method has a good chance of working: In appointing Rex Tillerson to the post of secretary of state – thus entrusting US diplomacy to the ExxonMobil CEO who enjoys personal ties with Putin and who has been dealing with Russian oil circles for decades – Trump is sending Moscow a specific signal, with a pragmatic (or maybe even unscrupulous) subtext consisting in an agreement on Syria, in leaving Crimea’s annexation in the background, in considering Ukraine’s fate of secondary importance, and in consigning sanctions to the archives. 

This is a scenario – with which the world of Italian industry is already falling into line – that would sanction the existence of a Russian sphere of influence in our “neighborhood” and a permanent role for Moscow in the Middle East, also incidentally making life easier for Iran, to which Trump has pointed as his priority foe. We are looking at short-term benefits but long-term problems. We can already take it as read that a part of Washington’s political and bureaucratic machine is going to tend to obstruct this pattern (the first sign of this being the tension with the CIA over alleged Russian interference in the US election campaign).

And while the same method is more risky and complex in the case of China (because in that case the impact is global rather than merely regional), the underlying fear for Europe is very simple indeed: Relegation to the sidelines. The rationale underlying the deal is that the Europeans must finally “play their part” in the field of security and defense policy. But that is not going to be so easy in the wake of Brexit and with the considerable political uncertainty currently holding sway in Europe’s crucial member states. A deadlock in 2017 is pretty much a foregone conclusion. And Trump is going to forge bilateral agreements: London first, but without losing sight of Germany which was alarmed by his election but which is eager to maintain its position as Europe’s referent power.

What is by no means a foregone conclusion is that the new administration will adopt positions running counter to Europe’s interests, or to a part of them at any rate. The priority for the Old World is to safeguard its relationship with the United States as the latter gets set to embark on a new era of economic vibrancy. In the more optimistic observers’ view, Trump 1 could be a kind of Reagan 2. The point is that the EU, a product of the Atlantic world, can no longer take that relationship for granted. It is going to have to radically change if it wishes to play its game in an international system more uncertain and tougher than it has ever been since 1945. The chill wind in Washington almost has the feeling of a warning shot. 

 

 

The Italian version of this article.