By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
Just two weeks after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, leading experts in Europe who have been actively engaged in shaping the Transatlantic relations during the last decades, expressed a profound unease about some policy aspects that emerge in the newly elected US administration provoking a storm of protest within the US as well as in Europe.
Many people within the European strategic community as well as US observers in Europe perceive President Donald Trump as a highly “unpredictable”, “chaotic” and “divisive” character. During the first days of his administration he has passed a series of decrees which turn upside down all “certainties” that determined the last 60 years of transatlantic relations.
At the beginning of 2017 there was a discussion in the Bonn Mid Atlantic Club (MAC Bonn), which discussed about the future perspectives in transatlantic relations.
Questions which were raised during the discussion were: What will the future of transatlantic relations look like under the new American President Trump; what shape will be given to the future economic EU/ US relations as well as to the German/ US relations. To what extent is the new administration a “wake up call” for Europe, to stand united and express its own interests?
According to an American representative who spoke at the MAC meeting, “things are changing in a fundamental way in Washington since President Trump has taken office in Washington.” The situation there is chaotic and very much instable given that many key posts in the administration are not yet confirmed. Yet the first telephone discussion which President Trump had with Chancellor Merkel was qualified as a “good discussion” and Trump’s remarks about NATO being “obsolete” should not be understood as a statement against NATO, but simply as an expression of Trump’s critical view of some NATO members that are not paying what they are supposed to pay to NATO. The new President will attend the G-20 summit which is going to take place (July 7/8) in Hamburg and has in turn invited German Chancellor Merkel to visit him in Washington D.C.. Foreign State Secretary Rex Tillerson is invited to attend the upcoming Munich Security Conference February 17-19th and the G-20 foreign ministers conference in Bonn, whereas Secretary of Defense Mattis will meet his NATO partners in Brussels by mid-February.
The key governing concept of Trump is expressed in “America first”. According to the American representative, Trump is reaffirming some of the “Westphalian Peace Treaty” principles which put the interests of the “nation state” at the center. “America first” and “make America great again” means “that America does not define itself as a ‘moral super power’ but sees itself as a rigorous defender of ‘national interests’”. A senior German defense and security expert expressed concern about the future of transatlantic relations and yet he and pointed to structures within the alliance which are irreversible and “permanent”. A European parliament deputy showed concern about the “protectionism” that may emerge in the US, especially in US – EU relations, and the possibility that punitive import tariffs may be imposed on European products. He warned that if important international trade agreements were skipped, as was the case with TPP, this would be detrimental to the wellbeing of the EU. At the same time he was worried that with a further rise in populism in Europe things may evolve in such a way in Europe, that democracy itself is at stake.
The US representative responded that from the standpoint of the U.S. the “EU is more fragile than ever.” Europe would therefore be well advised to “knock at the door” of the US Administration and clearly say what it has to say. At the same time he emphasized that in line with Trump’s “Nation State” concept Trump has above all a “domestic orientation” and that Trump and his advisors are generally more interested in “bilateral” agreements. “It’s all boiling down to the issue of sovereignty.”
Key policy principles of the Trump administration
Those Americans who elected Trump as new President, the representative emphasized, voted against free trade, migration as well as against the “ruling Washington Elite” which is perceived by many Americans as one of the sources for the deep split in the American society, and “Trump’s model is to make America great again, and that went to the heart of the voters,” the American expert stated during the discussion. “People voted out of concern for their place in society. They fear that the country they live in is not the country they were born in. Trump is their last chance to retain a future vision that in their perception has broken down during the last 25 years.” What worries many Americans is the huge US national debt which was once at 3 trillion US Dollars and today stands at 18 trillion US Dollars. The other issue is “immigration”. In the year 1988 there were 12 million immigrants. Today this has reached the level of 42 million immigrants, in addition to 15 million illegal immigrants.
The speaker referred to the testimony given by the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings. Speaking about the new challenges that are going to confront the United States, which include the threat of terrorism as well as foreign threats, Tillerson during the Senate hearing underlined that “we are the only superpower with the means and the moral compass capable of shaping the world for good. If we do not lead, we risk plunging the world deeper into confusion and danger. But we have stumbled. In recent decades, we have cast American leadership into doubt. In some instances we have withdrawn from the world. In others we have intervened with good intentions, but did not achieve the stability and global security we thought.”
With respect to future US – China as well as US – Russia relations, Tillerson had stated during the confirmation hearing that “China has been a valuable ally in curtailing certain elements of radical Islam. We should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership.” While on the one side Tillerson had warned of Russia’s new “aggressive assertiveness”, he emphasized on the other side that “we need an open and frank dialogue with Russia regarding its ambitions so we know how to chart our own course (…). For cooperation with Russia based on common interests such as reducing the global threat of terrorism, we ought to explore these options. Where important differences remain we should be steadfast in defending the interest of America and her allies as principles.” The American representative qualified Tillerson’s testimony message as one which goes along the line “we must see what the world is and build new partnerships.” The concept “America first” is the one that will determine future actions – concerning the forging of bilateral agreements and further engagements.
Washington playbook and the “Obama Doctrine”
During the discussion there was some debate about the future US foreign policy orientation.
During the common press conference which both UK Prime Minister May and President Trump recently held in Washington, they both underlined the need “to correct certain foreign policy errors” which had been committed during the last 18 years. In order to grasp what this means and to what extent there is a certain “continuity” in some foreign policy aspects in Washington, the American representative advised to study some of the background discussions which the editor in chief, Jeffery Goldberg, from the magazine The Atlantic had with former President Barack Obama over the course of the last several years and which were reflected in a lengthy Article in the Magazine The Atlantic (April 2016). The article offers indeed an interesting insight into the “Obama doctrine” and underlines that the former president Obama was critical about various military interventions which the US had engaged in, which the US often began, by responding to the pressure it received from allies such as Great Britain, France and others, as well as from people within the administration such as State Secretary Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power.
“Obama didn’t want to end up like a second President Bush – a president who became tragically overextended in the Middle East,” Goldberg wrote. “The Iraq invasion, Obama believed, should have taught Democratic interventionists like Clinton, who had voted for its authorization, the dangers of doing stupid shit.” Syria also was a slippery slope. Goldberg referred to the summer 2013 when a direct military intervention into Syria was hanging on a thread, with French President Hollande being one of the most enthusiastic pro- interventionist among Europe’s leaders. “The American people seemed un-enthusiastic about a Syrian intervention; so too did one of the few foreign leaders America respects, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. She told him that her country would not participate in a Syria campaign”, Goldberg noted. Obama’s decision not to strike in Syria “caused tremors across Washington,” while John McCain and Lindsey Graham were angered about Obama’s decision. Obama wanted to ask the U.S. Congress and “this one had little interest in a strike.” Goldberg further reported about the Obama / Putin meeting at the sidelines of the G20 in St Petersburg held a week after the Syria reversal, where Obama pulled Putin aside and told him to force Assad to get rid of chemical weapons. As Goldberg noted at one point in the article: “the moment Obama decided not to enforce his red line and bomb Syria, he broke with what he calls derisively ‘The Washington Playbook,’ this was his liberation day.”
The “Washington Playbook” is a playbook that comes out of the foreign policy establishment, Goldberg explained. “The playbook describes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly, if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.” Goldberg’s commentary about Obama’s decision not to strike Syria was that “in Obama’s mind, August 30, 2013, was his liberation day, the day he defied not only the foreign policy establishment and its cruise missile playbook, but also the demands of America’s frustrating, high- maintenance allies in the Middle-East countries.” Goldberg further reported about a discussion which he had with former President Obama concerning the four main schools of American foreign policy thought: One school is called “isolationism”, which Obama dismissed out of hand, since withdrawal is untenable. The other he labeled “realism”, the third “liberal interventionism” and the fourth “internationalism”. Obama stated during the discussion : “I suppose you call me a ‘realist’ in believing that we can’t at any moment intervene” while he at the same time underlined that part of his mission as president is to “spur other countries to take action for themselves, rather than wait for the U.S.to lead.”
A wake up call
Given the changes that are potentially going to emerge in the transatlantic relationship, it was emphasized during the discussion that the Europeans should see developments in the new administration as a “wake up call” and explore all possibilities to look for a direct and frank discussion with the new administration, in which they clearly state their views, interests and values. At the same time it is necessary to have what Chancellor Merkel called “strategic patience.”
Things are going to change in a fundamental way in the US. Trump’s recent decree which imposed a travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim countries has prompted a wave of protest all over the U.S. In several U.S. Federal States governors rejected the travel ban while some judges have momentarily stopped the implementation of this decree. This all indicates a new phenomenon, namely that the attitude by “Federal States” and a beginning growing “party consensus” is going to play a major influence upon future decision making in Washington.
During the debate a discussant pointed to the book “Dark Money” written by Jane Mayer (2016) which gives a striking insight into the key financiers that were behind the Republican election campaign: among them the Koch brothers Charles and Davis, the notorious Libertarian Lobby, as well as media tsar Rupert Murdoch. Trump was grudgingly accepted as necessary to win the voters of the lower income strata who felt otherwise disadvantaged. The discussant furthermore pointed to the special role which particularly Trump’s advisor Stephen Bannon is playing. Bannon has emerged as a “central figure” in the new Trump administration and had just been called into the National Security Council. According to a Guardian article (February 2nd, 2017) “he was appointed to the ‘principals committee’ of the National Security Council and was influential in the recent travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim –majority countries.” Months ago already, he openly advocated military confrontation with China in the South-China Sea in the years to come.
(on this issue see also https://www.frontiere.eu/venti-guerra-nel-pacifico/)