President Trump: the consequences for Europe’s foreign, security and defence policy

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During the electoral campaign, Donald Trump relied less on foreign policy, security, and defence advisors than any major party nominee in the past 70 years, making the shape and direction of U.S. foreign policy under his administration uncertain and difficult to predict. What might the election of Donald Trump mean for Europe and Europeans? Professor Ulrich Krotz, Chair in International Relations in the Department of Political and Social Sciences and the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, sheds some light on a situation that is anything but clear.

We could see fairly conventional Republican policies in several policy areas with this President, and that wouldn’t completely surprise me.  But the US President has a significant degree of freedom to move on a number of matters without Congress not least on foreign, security and defence policy.

Ulrich Krotz

Professor Ulrich Krotz

There are a few policy areas that will matter.

What presidential candidate Trump said about NATO is fairly contemptuous: things like ‘not worth the money’, ‘obsolete’ and so on. But is the United States’ exit from NATO imminent? I don’t think this is quite the case. These kinds of cardinal reorientations would be hard to enact quickly without the support of Congress. What strikes me as fairly possible, perhaps even likely, is that things will get quite a bit rougher. America will be less accommodating, maybe more bullying and, quite possibly, significantly more disinterested in matters that concern European security. Whether it’s friction or indifference, the effect may be the same: this will put a lot of pressure on Europeans. I think Europeans will have to do more in matters of security and defense, including a number of things they do not like to do and that European publics don’t like.

With regard to Russia, the Kremlin seems to be pleased with Trump’s victory. There has been a lot of flirtation with and appreciation of Putin from Trump in the campaign. There has also been talk of formally recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and, perhaps, altering the U.S. position vis-à-vis Eastern Ukraine. Politically many in the West have by and large accepted Russia’s de facto control over Crimea, but legally we haven’t.  And in the Kremlin there are apparently fantasies about some kind of bipolar concert running half of world politics—a ‘new kind of Yalta’ as some in Moscow have called it. I think we should let the temperature go down and see how things develop. I do not think there will be any kind of bipolar duopoly, but even hints at that will make a number of countries extremely nervous, especially Poland and the Baltic states and others. That will have medium-term implications. These countries will trust the United States much less, they will invest more in their own capabilities, and they will look for other allies. That is something we are likely to see around the world, not only in Europe’s eastern parts but also North East Asia, East Asia, and elsewhere. Flirtations of such kind already can do a lot of damage and we will see how this develops post-election.

I would guess the loud talk on nuclear weapons will also be toned down once the President-elect grasps the reality of the situation. During the campaign Trump made statement such as ‘we have nuclear weapons so why not use them?’ Right now, it seems, he has little appreciation of what it means to be responsible for the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, and what kind of tremendous destructive potential that has. But I am not convinced that the use of nuclear missiles is imminent either. That someone arrives in such a high position without a clear sense of what that means is anything but unprecedented. Both Ronald Reagan and Nikita Khrushchev, for example, took office without any real knowledge of nuclear arms. Khrushchev recalled, after he left office, that when he learned of the destructive potential of nuclear weapons he couldn’t sleep for several nights. Then he said ‘I could sleep again because it became clear to me that, given how immensely destructive these weapons are, nobody would ever use them again’. How will Donald Trump react when he gets briefed by those who do understand the issues at stake? We don’t know. I am fairly certain, though, that the talk will be less loud than it was during the campaign but, again, it has already had an impact. It is much more likely that there will be no use of nuclear weapons, but others will be more nervous. A number of countries around the globe will be more likely to move into that zone where they can go nuclear fairly quickly.

TTIP and free trade quite likely will be damaged with the new administration, and it is clear it will be much harder to have a good deal with Trump than we could have had with Obama. Will there be any deal at all? Maybe not. Recall, though, that Donald Trump isn’t the first or only protectionist on the scene, and he is in with a strange coalition of European far-rights but also with many European socialists and green parties. This combination will likely make it difficult to reap the benefits of free trade deals in the years ahead.

I have a qualified prediction on European foreign, security and defence policy: we will get more of it. We will get more of it because the Americans will do less and because they will push us into doing more. That is not new. That has been around for quite a while, but the pressure is likely to increase. It will probably be less well managed and will take place in a diplomatic atmosphere that is less congenial than it could have been. Europeans will have to take on quite a bit more, and if we fail to get it right this time, I fear we risk our position on the chessboard of 21st century world politics.

It would be regrettable if, in the coming years, in Europe and elsewhere, we end up seeing a wave of anti-Americanism and moral and cultural superiority. We have to deal with the United States. A constructive working relationship with the U.S. is not a matter of choice, but a matter of necessity. And since Europe, as seen from Washington, is disunited and weak, we will not usually be in the driver’s seat.  Therefore, any kind of arrogance, and any kind of contemptuous remarks like the German Foreign Minister or the French President made shortly before the election are almost certainly to be counterproductive.

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