Donald Trump has not lost his capacity to surprise: few would have bet on him starting his address to Congress with praise for Black History Month. Tuesday night’s speech was the nearest Trump has come to acting like a traditional president. But one thing conspicuous by its absence was any mention of Russia. To Europeans, his Russia policy remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Four things make Trump’s approach to Moscow particularly hard to fathom. First is the fact that no one is sure who really speaks for him on foreign policy. What should Europe make of vice-president Mike Pence’s soothing words at the recent Munich Security Conference? Or regular efforts at reassurance by James Mattis, his defense secretary, and Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state?
James Forsyth and Freddy Gray ask whether Trump is going cold on Russia:
Then there’s the Russian state inserting itself into the US election process. People wonder, understandably, why the Kremlin would have bothered doing this if it didn’t feel it had something to gain. (It does seem that it was motivated as much by dislike for Hillary Clinton as anything else.) And the lurid rumours about Trump’s personal links with Russia further muddy the waters. The claims include everything from the idea that his property empire was helped through the financial crisis by ‘grey money’ from oligarchs to the allegation that the authorities there have compromising material showing him involved in a bizarre act with hookers in a Moscow hotel.
What is certainly true is that some of Trump’s inner circle have an alarmingly rosy view of Vladimir Putin. There is a worrying amount of admiration for him as a strong leader who stands up for his country’s interests. This is mixed with a sense that Russia is entitled to a near-abroad — that its post-Cold War status must be handled with care to avoid a repeat of Germany and Versailles.
The final complicating factor is the desire of some in the Trump camp to use the Russians as a French Foreign Legion-style force. The theory is that the Putin regime could bear casualties while clearing Isis out of Syria in a way that a western democracy could not, so it should be encouraged to do so. One of the flaws with this idea is that it is in neither Putin’s nor the Syrian leader Assad’s interests to totally wipe out the Islamic State.
Despite all this, the British government now feels that it has a far better handle on the Trump administration’s Russia policy. It has heard from those close to Trump in the White House, as well as the Pentagon and the State Department, and is now confident it knows what Washington’s approach will be.
The first part of the plan is to wait. They want to make Putin come to them. In a classic business ploy, Washington wants to exploit the difference between bid and offer. So there’ll be no Reykjavik-style summit with Putin until he comes up with his offer. They think that being ignored will unsettle him and force him to the table.
Next, the increase in US defence spending that Trump proposed to Congress is designed to remind the Russians that they simply can’t afford to challenge America. If Congress does approve Trump’s plan for a $54 billion increase, then this rise alone will be within a billion of Russia’s total defence budget last year. The US would be outspending Putin by a factor of 11. Those familiar with the Trump administration’s thinking compare it to how Ronald Reagan increased defence spending by over a hundred billion during his presidency, forcing the USSR to spend more than a quarter of its GDP in a vain attempt to keep up. In another nod to the 1980s, the Trump team is also keen to revitalise the US missile defence programme.
Meanwhile, the President’s criticism of the New Start nuclear reduction agreement with Russia, and his desire to increase America’s nuclear arsenal, is a reminder that Trump’s overriding obsession is with ‘good deals’. This focus is, perhaps, the key to understanding his foreign policy.
And the third element is the realisation that how America handles Russia will be seen by other world powers as a sign of its strength. Admittedly, Trump is more likely to be kept awake by cable news or a Twitter spat than the fate of Ukraine under the Minsk Agreements. But his White House does realise that if it lets Moscow walk away from that deal it will be seen as a sign of impotence — with Beijing in particular taking note. The Trump team boast about how their plan is to project strength and make other countries realise they need to co-operate. Letting Russia dictate terms would not fit into that playbook.
But, ultimately, the USA’s strategic focus is to move away from Europe. The end of the Cold War made this continent far less important to Washington. Add to this the fact that America is likely to be self-sufficient in energy by 2023 and you can see how the Middle East, too, will have much lower strategic importance — further reducing Europe’s relevance. Both the Obama’s administration’s ‘pivot’ towards Asia and Trump’s aim for a 350-ship navy are designed to check China. US strategic thinkers, even those who are very anti-Trump, view a naval conflict between the US and China as alarmingly likely.
This is why all of Nato’s European members would be well advised to meet the alliance’s minimum requirement for defence spending: currently, only four do. It is hard to argue with Mattis’s message to the rest that ‘Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do’.
This makes Angela Merkel’s position that Germany won’t meet the Nato minimum until 2024 seem short-sighted. An ‘America First’ administration is going to ask why it should subsidise the defence of a country that is running a whacking trade surplus with the USA.
Trump does not want to be a foreign policy president. To the extent that he has a national security strategy, it is about getting a good deal for America — almost regardless of the political cost. At the very least, the US will be far more reluctant to provide the lubricant that keeps the global order’s wheels turning. But it also means that Trump will be determined that the US comes out on top, and is seen to do so, in any agreement with Russia.
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