Between Continuity and Change: What a Trump Presidency Will Mean to Europe and the Transatlantic Link
President Trump’s rise to power will remain controversial for a long period of time. His path to the White House has been too unconventional and marked by the breach of most of the implicit rules of the US Presidential campaigns. Like most of the radicals entering the political arena, he made his way up into the headlines resorting to an unprecedentedly provocative kind of communication. He played his game asymmetrically, turning his opponents’ best qualities, such as experience and balance, into their worst vulnerability, and assigning to social media, and particularly Twitter, the task of mobilizing support.
Trump seized the nomination by defeating much more authoritative candidates one after another, like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Ted Cruz, before crushing Hillary Clinton on November 8th. Despite the concession call made by his Democratic rival, however, the struggle between the new President of the United States and his adversaries is not yet over. And Trump now faces significant opposition from the American “Deep State”, influential power brokers, and some corners of Congress, which are doing what they can in order to embarrass him. Moreover, this time the Transition of Power was neither quiet nor orderly, as until the very last moments of his Administration, Barack Obama was purposefully taking sensitive decision which many analysts suspected were geared to disrupt Trump’s agenda.
At the core of the problem Trump represents to the establishment is the dramatic change of paradigm the new President is determined to impose on the foreign and trade policies of the US.
At the core of the problem Trump represents to the establishment is the dramatic change of paradigm the new President is determined to impose on the foreign and trade policies of the US. And some tenets of the new creed appear true departures from the traditional stance adopted by America in the last decades.
Since he announced his candidacy in July 2015, Trump advocated with remarkable consistency for a more isolationist approach to world affairs, a reset of the bilateral relationship with Russia, a more confrontational posture vis-à-vis China, a revamping of both domestic anti-terror and international counter-terrorism efforts, and the adoption of a more mercantilist stance.
But is that package really the dangerous revolution so many fear? There are sound reasons to doubt it. Trump plans and vision deserve a closer scrutiny.
If we move out the poisoned atmosphere of the recent political struggle, which is still continuing these days, we will discover that what Trump is indeed determined to put in motion is not a complete departure from the American long standing traditions: there will be instead a mix of continuity and change.
The rejection by the American people of a US imperial role is not the result of a presumed perception of weakness. It has been dictated by the resurgent spirit of the American Republic: put into a longer term historical perspective, the decades of active and continuous engagement abroad during the Cold War were an exception, the true betrayal of George Washington last wills and the general sentiment of the Founding Father, and not the standard rule for America.
There is not yet such a thing as an American decline, as the US still enjoys a clear supremacy in every dimension of political power, from advanced weaponry to technological, financial and informational dominance. But the American people is suffering from “superpower fatigue”. Obama was among the first American politicians to detect this trend and in 2008 he carefully crafted his Presidential bid on the recognition of that collective mindset, just like Trump, who now wants to move further ahead. It is worth noting that both Barack and Donald prevailed on Hillary Clinton, who was instead the latest herald of the old liberal-interventionist pattern, and did not spare criticism on Obama’s presidential record for his allegedly excessive self-restraint in the use of force.
There is also a strong push for change. Where Obama and Trump really diverge, is on the definition of the role America should play on the World stage.
President Obama reduced the US military footprint in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, despite being well aware that such a choice could have triggered destabilizing effects all over the Eurasian Rimland (which Spykman considered more important than Mackinder’s Heartland). He craved for a comprehensive reconciliation between America and Political Islam, putting to an end the nearly two decades long Global War on Terror. Geopolitical holes did not scare him, as long as they could have sucked in rivals, competitors, and even allies, draining or diverting their resources from investments in sensitive areas where the US shall preserve a strategic edge. Burden sharing was imposed by default. All the while, compliance with the American interest was enforced through the so-called smart power, resorting to indirect means, and exploiting advanced political marketing techniques coupled with an extraordinary amount of real time intelligence.
Compliance with the American interest was enforced through the so-called smart power, resorting to indirect means, and exploiting advanced political marketing techniques coupled with an extraordinary amount of real time intelligence.
In the end, Obama was neither the abysmal failure nor the ineffective and harmless President some detractors describe. He just walked away from the established patterns inherited by his predecessors. He was the first post-Cold War American President not to feature himself as the leader of a West encompassing also Europe, a Continent he consistently neglected especially during his first term at the White House. And he pursued the US national interest in much narrower terms than his predecessors have done.
It is predictable that Trump will be even more nationalistic than his predecessor under many respects, but, as a pragmatic businessman who invested in dozens of foreign countries, he will display no appetite for instability, insecurity, and war. Chaos will cease to be considered a desirable or viable option, even if under Trump the US will surely further diminish the role of international security provider it played in the second half of the 20th Century.
America will not disarm - on the contrary! - but she will limit herself to self-defence and the external management of regional equilibria, at the minimum possible cost in “blood and treasure” to the American taxpayer, as Henry Kissinger advised in his World Order. The US will gradually switch back to the posture it had embraced before the Second World War. And concepts such as the Responsibility to protect will fade away as guidance for Foreign Policy.
In the framework of a downsized American military exposure abroad, US allies will be required to upgrade their commitment to common security. It is necessary, but will not be sufficient. Given the current political and military weakness of the European powers, Trump will need also further partners, such as Russia, in order to pursue the ambitious stabilization he envisages in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and - why not? - even the Far East.
But turning old enemies into new partners is never an easy political operation. Intellectual adaptation to structural and behavioural change is a slow process and Trump will have a hard fight for a successful tenure. Attempts at impeaching him cannot be ruled out. Some are already under way, as prominent members of the Congress and the intelligence community are collecting data and evidence leading to a supposed illegitimate Russian interference in the last Presidential election. Some went so far as to portray Trump as a “Manchurian” leader, dependent on Moscow or blackmailed by the Kremlin.
Most of the allegations, however, are clearly misconceived and poorly documented, if not entirely fabricated, and they will hardly lead to an abrupt end of the Trump Presidency, even if it is true that the recent US Presidential campaign was really open to the external influence exerted by a multitude of foreign actors. The playground, this time, was indeed really global, as social media gave every concerned citizen in the World the chance to interact with the American debate, and many of them also financially supported their favourite Presidential candidate through crowdfunding. Nor has Trump been successfully linked so far to any proven economic interests in Russia, a market where he was denied access many times in the past.
For him, it is just plain strategy – if America is to bring her boys back home, and not deploy some more abroad, she needs strong and influential partners. And luring Moscow into an alliance with the US will also serve the purpose of dismantling a dangerous anti-American block Beijing is building with Russia, leaving China alone and exposed to American power.
Luring Moscow into an alliance with the US will also serve the purpose of dismantling a dangerous anti-American block Beijing is building with Russia, leaving China alone and exposed to American power.
Trump should also survive the latest wave of attacks, even if his Administration could be hampered to some extent at its very onset, and for a certain period of time. The pursuit of détente with the Russian Federation could be slowed and a significant amount of resources devoted to pure defensive tasks on the domestic arena.
But if the new President will prove able to recast Russia as a partner of the United States, the whole geopolitics of Europe and the posture of the Atlantic Alliance will be affected.
First of all, NATO will be reoriented as best suited to reassure Moscow, de-escalating the build-up of Western military assets at its Eastern borders, so far perfectly reversible. Moreover, if the neutralization of Ukraine will be put on the table, as many speculate, not only will Poland, the Baltic States and Norway suffer a serious setback, but also Germany and Sweden.
The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (associated with the Silk Road) will also be eventually disrupted. But France, Italy and Spain, as well as Romania, should see their security prospects remarkably improved, as the Allied security focus will shift southward, and not only Russia, but also Egypt, Turkey and possibly even Israel, will be successfully involved into a concerted effort to put to an end to both the Syrian and Libyan civil wars, and get some control over migration flows reaching Europe. New alignments will emerge.
The very news of Trump victory has already set in motion or reinforced several positive interlinked processes. Ankara embraced a more realistic approach to Syria, giving up the idea of regime change in Damascus, and could cooperate with Moscow also in Libya. On the latter theatre, General Khalifa Haftar’s bid to national leadership is getting traction, with Egyptian, French and now also Russian support. Even his longstanding rival, Khalifa Ghwell, is said to be considering reconciliation with his former enemy.
NATO will be reoriented as best suited to reassure Moscow, de-escalating the build-up of Western military assets at its Eastern borders, so far perfectly reversible.
Trump’s arrival into the White House has clearly begun to change the geopolitical calculus of many, be they individuals or States. Everybody knows how important Egypt, now in the hands of a very conservative military government, will be in the Mediterranean strategy of the new American President, and adapt accordingly. There will not be a Restoration, however. Instead, a different regional political order should gradually emerge out of past excesses. As support for the revolution into the Arab world will continue to collapse, a way out the prolonged crisis broken up in 2010 could be finally in sight.
For an interview of Germano Dottori speaking about Russian-American relations, please check this link.