Trump, Putin and a Contentious State of Affairs on the Continent
By: Reva Goujon | Stratfor.comJuly 12, 2018
Highlights
  • U.S. President Donald Trump's return to the NATO summit will bring with it a repeat of a set of familiar negotiating tactics, which are more likely to deepen the chasm between the White House and some security allies.
  • While U.S. relations with the Western European powers will remain strained, Eastern European allies will try to deepen their energy and security ties with Washington in hopes of muddying a potential U.S.-Russia rapprochement.
  • While negotiations with Moscow on a host of issues could serve a strategic purpose, that strategy would be greatly undermined if the White House inadvertently plays to the Kremlin on dividing the West.

With another NATO summit underway, the news media will go wild again this week in search of another iconic image to add to U.S. President Donald Trump's scrapbook on trans-Atlantic relations. Will the president top the 2017 shot of his shoving aside the leader of a tiny Balkan country? Will there be public outcry when he avoids endorsing another generic joint statement? After a handful of summits like these, Trump's "shock and awe" tactics on his European partners are getting awfully predictable. And no leader will take more delight in the stressed trans-Atlantic relations than Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will be meeting with Trump on the heels of the NATO summit. 

Step 1: The Numerical Fixation

A familiar pattern will play out in Brussels when NATO convenes. As a set of tweets from the American president has already shown, there will be an excessive fixation on a particular measurement, which will be distorted in an attempt to make a valid strategic argument. Just as the Trump White House has obsessed over trade deficit figures to justify tariffs — while disregarding the substantial and growing trade in services — the U.S. president will harangue his European security partners again over their failure to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. That demand is rooted in an old and reasonable American argument that European allies should be shouldering more of the security burden in NATO. That burden includes not only overall defense expenditures but also contributions of troops and materiel to conflict zones of common interest, as well as participation in U.S.-led ballistic missile defense systems, logistical support and investments in emerging technologies.

 
This chart shows defense spending in 2017 by NATO members as a percentage of GDP
 

But the fixation on a single, noncommittal figure largely misses the point. By that measure, an economically weak country such as Greece, whose military budget largely covers pensions and salaries that are of little use to the bloc's collective defense, gets a pass from Uncle Sam for exceeding the 2 percent threshold. Meanwhile, France, which has taken the initiative in streamlining European defense for greater efficiency and power projection overseas and which has painstakingly made arrangements for the United Kingdom to remain a key piece of European defense despite exiting the union, would technically fall below the 2 percent mark. European NATO members will grit their teeth as the American president lectures them on defense spending as they try their best to steer the discussion toward a more comprehensive view of the bloc's defense integration and priorities.

Step 2: Hyperbolic Threats

The president can also be expected to bandy about inflated threats to try to jolt the Europeans into meeting his narrow demands. Last year, NATO members were thrown into a tizzy over Trump's tardy endorsement of the Article 5 principle on collective defense; this year, paranoia over the U.S. commitment to European defense has been fueled by leaks that the president is questioning the purpose of a 35,000-strong U.S. troop presence in Germany. To be clear, the United States is not about to abruptly pull its forces from a critical hub in Europe. However, it has been reducing its military footprint in Germany steadily since the end of the Cold War. Washington recalibrated the drawdown in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. Rather than maintain a rigid force structure through large, permanent bases, the United States has been shifting to what is known as a heel-to-toe model, which would forward-deploy forces on a rotating basis to maintain an agile permanent presence on Europe's eastern flank. Only, persuading countries such as Germany, which has been more cautious in its relationship with Moscow as well as in its own defense spending, to carry the burden of these deployments has not been easy. Meanwhile, more vulnerable countries on the front lines with Russia, such as Poland and Lithuania, have persisted in their appeals for permanent U.S. basing. Poland, cleverly appealing to the White House's cost-burden sensitivities, is even offering to shoulder most of the expense of a permanent U.S. base. As the United States evaluates its options for adapting its force structure in Europe to maintain a check on Russia and potentially reward its more enthusiastic security allies there, a further consolidation of its forces in Germany would logically factor into those considerations.

 
 

Even so, Trump's characterization of the U.S. military presence in Europe as an overgenerous favor to so-called deadbeat allies such as Germany will only add to the complaints he is piling up against Berlin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's softer approach toward managing European migration has earned her rebuke from the U.S. president and nearly cost her the survival of her own government. And the list of near-existential threats to the Merkel government doesn't end there. Trump has frequently disparaged Germany for maintaining trade surpluses in a captive EU market. His threat to impose 25 percent tariffs on automobiles and auto parts would deal a particularly hard blow to German manufacturers, who enjoyed a $16.7 billion surplus in the auto trade in 2017. According to the Ifo Institute of Munich, U.S. auto tariffs would saddle Germany with roughly $5 billion in losses. Even if Germany wanted to defuse the threat by offering to lower EU tariffs to match U.S. levels, Merkel faces an uphill battle in gaining the bloc's consensus on a limited trade deal when countries such as France, Spain and Italy see little need to make such concessions to the United States.

Step 3: Negotiate … Maybe?

An unrelenting fixation on simplistic measurements paired with big threats could, in theory, lay the groundwork for an ultimately constructive negotiation. But here is where things get especially worrisome for U.S. security allies. The White House's abrupt withdrawals from the Paris climate accord and Iran nuclear deal, along with its decision to drop exemptions and slap steel and aluminum tariffs on its allies, point to the severe limits on bargaining for a moderate outcome with the Trump administration when ideological convictions are at stake. And even as retaliatory tariffs are pounding the U.S. farm belt in the final stretch before congressional midterm elections, it is still an open question about how much economic pain the White House is willing to absorb in staying true to Trump's campaign pledges. The United States' European allies can take some comfort in the still-robust institutional bonds between the United States and its NATO partners that will prevent the president from pulling the rug out from under a critical trans-Atlantic security alliance. But on trade, where the president is wielding an extraordinary amount of executive power and where congressional checks have been slow to emerge, the economic foundation to U.S. security relationships will remain wobbly.

The Russian Enigma

As Trump plods across Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be patiently waiting beyond NATO bounds in Helsinki, where the two are scheduled to meet on July 16. Sowing divisions in trans-Atlantic relations to prevent a united Western bloc from challenging Moscow is a core component of the Russian geopolitical playbook. And the U.S. president's willingness to openly quarrel with Western European allies naturally aids Moscow's strategy. 

An unconventional president in the White House will not be the cure-all for Russia's geopolitical ills.

But an unconventional president in the White House will not be the cure-all for Russia's geopolitical ills. Its fitful quest for security on the European continent cannot be satisfied, leaving Moscow in a perpetual state of paranoia about Western intentions. That deep insecurity is all the more consuming because it faces intensifying challenges at home from a generation dubious of the need to satisfy Putin's demand for absolute control. At the same time, geopolitical dynamics in Eurasia are giving Moscow a bit of breathing room to deal with those challenges. To Russia's west, Europe continues to fragment — with the encouragement of the American president. To Russia's east, China is amassing significant economic, military and technological prowess to challenge the U.S.-led order. Despite historical animosity between the Eurasian powers, China and Russia are finding common cause to counterbalance the United States in an emerging multipolar world order.

Irrespective of who is leading from the White House, it is in the United States' geopolitical DNA to prevent the rise of a Eurasian hegemon. Since China is clearly the more enduring threat, it makes sense for the United States to do what it can to file down an emerging axis between Moscow and Beijing. So, for all the crowing over Trump's upcoming sit-down with Putin, there is a strategic angle to a U.S.-Russian dialogue on a variety of issues, including repairing and updating critical arms control agreements, setting mutual limits on military buildups, setting boundaries in Syria around Iran, breaking an impasse over eastern Ukraine, charting a denuclearization path for North Korea and specifying the price for easing sanctions. Even though each of these topic areas is riddled with constraints, from congressional and other institutional checks on the president to the sheer limits of Russia's influence in theaters like Syria, not all are condemned to remain at a deadlock.

The U.S. strategy to deal with Russia will remain inextricably linked to how it manages a balance of power on the European continent, however. And here is where Trump's playbook runs into problems. The United Kingdom is too consumed with its divorce from the bloc to assume its traditional balancing role for the Continent. That knocks out the third leg of the triad of great European powers, leaving an uneasy pair in France and Germany to prevent the Continent from descending into an all-too-familiar pattern of conflict. The ambitious union that was designed to erase conflict from the Continent remains under siege from a range of Euroskeptic forces trying to reclaim sovereignty from an embattled bureaucracy in Brussels.

Any astute observer of European history understands well that bureaucracy alone cannot unify a continent riven with rivalry and snuff out nationalist impulses. But it is one thing for the U.S. president to recognize and operate within the limits of an uncomfortable reality without losing sight of its core imperative: maintaining a balance of power in Europe is still essential to the United States' ability to manage growing competition with Russia and China and any peripheral distractions that may emerge. It is another thing to actively stoke nationalist embers on the Continent and encourage the unraveling of an imperfect bloc through trade assaults and transactional security threats. The latter is playing with fire.

Trump, Putin and a Contentious State of Affairs on the Continent is republished with permission from Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical intelligence platform.

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