Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump clearly enjoys making headlines, and with his recent pronouncements on NATO and the limits of US support for its allies, he is making them across Europe — and in Russia.
Trump’s businessman’s approach to foreign policy and reckless disregard for the international order the United States has kept in place for decades worries Europe, encourages Russia, and promises stability to no one.
The Trump Doctrine: Geopolitics meets The Art of the Deal
In an interview in the New York Times last week, Trump espoused three positions that would radically shift the entire foundation of US foreign and defense policy.
First, he took a very clear stance in opposition to the idea of “nation building” and intervening in other countries’ domestic politics. “We are going to take care of this country first before we worry about everybody else in the world” — and not focus on spreading US values abroad, he said. In this, he was echoing one of his advisers, Carter Page, who recently used to trip to Moscow to slam what he called Washington’s “often-hypocritical focus on democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change.”
Second, Trump continued to express a desire to work with strongmen, leaders whose commitment to democracy may be conditional or downright absent but who he felt could be useful allies. He brushed aside concerns about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s far-reaching purge following the recent failed military coup, for example, instead focusing on the potential for cooperation with Erdoğan against ISIS.
Although a little less fulsome about Russia’s Vladimir Putin than in the past, he nonetheless hoped for a better relationship, dismissing the current tensions between the two countries as “drama.” Even ousting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, for all that he is “a bad man,” in Trump’s words, ought to be a lower priority than fighting ISIS.
Finally, as befits the co-author of The Art of the Deal, Trump moves America’s treaty commitments from the realm of diplomacy to the world of business. Repeatedly, he made it clear that he felt the United States needed to be financially reimbursed for its support and protection.
When asked specifically about whether he would fulfill America’s commitment to help defend the Baltic States in the case of Russian aggression, he replied: “Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.” In general terms, his view is that “[i]f we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries … [t]hen yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, ‘Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.’”
In effect, this portends not just a return to isolationism or a desire to disentangle the United States from overseas commitments. It represents an outright repudiation of the “Western consensus”: the notion that unity and common defense are in everyone’s interest. In short, the logic of the “Trump Doctrine” is that America is no longer the world’s policeman and instead may become its part-time rent-a-cop.
The prospect of a Trump presidency is alarming allies and emboldening rivals
Although the odds remain against Trump winning the presidency, they were also against his becoming the Republican candidate. This is going to be an unpredictable election, and it is impossible to rule out a victory for him in November.
America’s allies are clearly unsettled. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed, “Solidarity among allies is a key value for NATO,” and that what is “good for European security [is] good for US security. We defend one another. … Two world wars have shown that peace in Europe is also important to the security of the United States.”
But there is clearly a degree of hopeful anticipation in Moscow. After all, the essence of NATO’s capacity to deter aggression is its demonstrable resolve. So long as it seems plausible that allies will hold together and treat an attack on one as an attack on them all, it remains the most formidable military alliance the world has ever known.
As soon as a degree of conditionality is introduced into the process, though, that quickly comes under question. Given that Trump has already called the alliance obsolete — and apparently doesn’t care if his policies cause NATO to break up — it’s no wonder countries on the NATO front line against Russia are feeling worried.
Tiny Latvia, for example, has a large Russian-speaking population, an army of just 4,600 full-timers — equivalent to one reinforced Russian brigade — and a defense budget that’s due to reach NATO’s target of 2 percent of GDP by 2018 but is not there yet.
Although there is no serious suggestion Russia has any plans to intervene in Latvia (at present Putin is basically just trolling the West, hoping to force concessions in return for a quiet life), the very possibility that it could would inevitably cause some Latvians to contemplate appeasing Moscow.
And that’s the greatest danger in all of this: that divisions in the West will encourage defeatism in Europe and adventurism in Moscow.
But in the long term, even Russia has reasons to be concerned
Needless to say, there is immediate satisfaction in Moscow about a Trump America abandoning its commitments and looking instead for short-term gains and value-free alliances. If anything, Trump would seem committed to making Russia great again. Given Putin’s belief that the West is intent on regime change in Russia, a Trump presidency would also seem to take that off the table.
However, conversations with people within the Russian foreign policy community and deeper reading of some of the press suggest some growing concerns about the prospect. Trump as a destabilizing spoiler within US politics is an asset, but a Trump presidency is much less appealing, even to the Russians.
First of all, they fear unpredictability and still have no real sense of what Trump would really do. Second, for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, US disengagement from Europe might embolden the hawks and see control over foreign affairs even more firmly in the hands of Kremlin hawks. More generally, many worry about the implications for Russia in a world without the old rules and certainties.
In that same New York Times interview, Trump said that “this is not 40 years ago. We are not the same country and the world is not the same world.” That is absolutely true. However, his policies would turn America’s geopolitical clock back 140 years, to a world before international law, where might made right and nations brawled for trade and empire.
Putin’s own geopolitics are in many ways the same, but he relies on the West abiding by the very same rules be breaks with such abandon. The prospect of the United States, which for all its flaws is the linchpin of the modern global system, working according to the same cutthroat rules, is no comfort to him. Or to anyone else.
Mark Galeotti is an incoming senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the director of Mayak Intelligence. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.