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Will the transatlantic relationship survive Trump diplomacy?

13 Aug 2018 - 11:16

Last week, American President Donald J. Trump visited Europe like a whirlwind. He kicked up a fuss at the NATO-summit in Brussels and later insulted the British Prime Minister Theresa May regarding ‘Brexit’. Trump sat in Churchill’s chair and drank tea with Queen Elizabeth II. Finally, he had a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Throughout this whole “Trump in Europe” diplomatic sitcom, it was crystal clear that the American president’s meetings in Belgium and the United Kingdom constituted nothing but a prelude. His long awaited, largely secretive encounter with Putin was by far the most important stop of Trump’s Europe tour.

The week before, Western NATO members were reprimanded every morning on Twitter for spending “too little” on defense. British Prime Minister May was criticized for having dealt with Brexit ‘wrongly’. The Helsinki Summit with Putin was conducted under a wholly different atmosphere. On the day of the summit, Trump tweeted that the relationship with Russia had never been so sour due to American ‘foolishness and stupidity’. Blame America First, as it were. The Russian foreign ministry tweeted laconically in response that they “agreed” with this assessment. On the one hand criticism of the Western allies, who are portrayed as adversaries. On the other hand flattery aimed at Russia, for unspecified reasons. Trump’s diplomatic world seems to function upside down.

Blame America First, as it were

The Helsinki Summit had an open agenda. Much remained unclear beforehand. Trump had requested the meeting, while Putin had the most to gain out of it. The sanctions which were imposed on Moscow in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea have been weighing heavily on Russia. The Reserve Fund that still contained some 125 billion dollar a few years ago, has been exhausted. The American president started the meeting with some sort of flattery, as if he was looking for Putin’s approval. But what has been gained from the meeting? If we are to believe both leaders, a new chapter has arrived in American-Russian bilateral relations.

The Russian federation wishes to mend the bilateral cooperation in the area of security, technical military cooperation, arms control and avoiding a militarization in space. Putin also suggested to reactivate the bilateral working group on anti-terrorism. A cooperation in the realm of cyber could eliminate the allegations concerning an alleged Russian interference in the American presidential elections of 2016. Putin also points to more cooperation in the cultural field. A bilateral commission existing of political experts would make further suggestions on how to get the bilateral cooperation back on track. All very remarkable. There was only one problem; Trump did not voice any criticism on Russian policies during the Helsinki meeting. When he was back in Washington a day later Trump suddenly did, or didn’t he? Nobody is really sure. The real Donald Trump probably wouldn’t.

There was only one problem; Trump did not voice any criticism on Russian policies during the Helsinki meeting

But the question remains; why did Trump act so weak vis-à-vis Putin? Did Moscow overplay its hand in Helsinki? Putin later even had to come to the defence of Trump, a surreal situation. A week ago, the Russian Ministry of Defence tweeted that it was ready to “implement” the security agreements that were reached in Helsinki. 1  What agreements? Bloomberg recently hinted an alleged proposal by Putin for a new referendum in Ukraine, in the most eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.2 It does not seem this proposal would fly with the European allies nor with Kiev. Nevertheless, the content of what has been agreed upon in Helsinki still remains unclear and highly speculative. There remains a distinct feeling among observers that not all of the political fall-out of Helsinki is known yet to the broader public.

Both leaders did however mention Syria as an area of policy convergence. Russian president Putin proposes to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in this war-torn country. He mentioned having already discussed certain proposals on this topic with his French colleague Macron at the world football championship. Moscow and Washington want to work together on peace and reconciliation in this country. In particular Southwest Syria is mentioned by both leaders in that regard. Trump and Putin apparently mostly discussed Iranian activities in that particular region of the country, in order to prevent it from being used as a base against Israel. Although Trump does not say so openly, it is clear he is giving Putin a free hand. Assad has won the war, and is further consolidating his military position – now especially in Idlib province. Is an American withdrawal from Syria imminent? The Iran deal however remains a point of contention between East and West. Russia will actively keep searching for a compensation for the American exit out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), dating from July 2015. Meanwhile Trump is further gearing up his rhetoric via-à-vis Iran, much like he did with North Korea a year ago. His twelve demands to Iran are however designed to be unacceptable to Teheran. Here the US clashes, not only with the Russian federation, but also with the European Union’s interests.

Putin kept his poker face at the beginning of the conference, yet at the end of it, all he could do was smile and grin

All in all, Trump gave little to no counterbalance to his Russian counterpart in Helsinki. No warning was given to the Russian President that Moscow shouldn’t cross any red lines, in future American elections nor in any other geopolitical theatres. Putin kept his poker face at the beginning of the conference, yet at the end of it, all he could do was smile and grin. The Russian federation is again recognized by the American superpower without having to give away too many of its own cards. US sanctions on Russia will however not yet be lifted. Trump will probably have to wait for that until the parliamentary elections in November, once the Republican caucus in the House becomes more “Trumpian”. The question remains whether Trump’s advisors will not counteract the erratic policies of their boss in the months to come. A follow-up meeting between Trump and Putin will be held in the White House, in 2019. The geopolitical consequences could be far-reaching.

It was the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Heiko Maas, who formulated in the most clear way a European reaction to what happened in Helsinki: “We can no longer rely on the White House.” In his opinion, Germany should embed its foreign policy deeper into a stronger European framework in order to defend its own interests. After all, there is a grave danger that the two superpowers will try to impose their geopolitical and geo-economic agenda on the old continent. A previous Helsinki Summit in 1975 created a framework for a Eastern European detente and later unification. This Helsinki Summit might be the prelude to new divisions in Europe.

Does Trump believe Putin more than he believes his own American intelligence agencies?

On his flight back to Washington, Trump was confronted with deep criticism from his own ranks; the Republican Party and Fox News. Had he abandoned his own team? Does Trump believe Putin more than he believes his own American intelligence agencies? Invariably, Trump came up with another prepared statement in which he declared he ‘forgot’ a word. He would not know why Russia would not have meddled with the American elections. A double negation. In the next sentence, Trump however said it (the perpetrators) could have been “many people”. The President will probably politically survive this incident once again, but he is slowly becoming the most lonely man in Washington. Trump does not even trust his own entourage anymore.

The conclusions from “Helsinki” are however profound; alarm bells should go off in Europe. If in the months to come a real crisis is suddenly truly imminent in Central Europe, around the Baltic states or Poland, will Trump believe rather believe Putin’s words over those of his own intelligence agencies? Is there even still such a thing as an American security guarantee for Europe, the so-called article 5 in the NATO-treaty of Washington of 1949? Serious doubt could arise soon over this. In his interview with Fox News, Trump made the situation even worse by stating that NATO’s newest member-country Montenegro consists of a very “strong and aggressive population”, which could even cause World War III.3  

Will the Transatlantic Alliance survive the Trump presidency? Will NATO still be credible or will it gradually start decading from the inside out? The states on the Old Continent should better expand their European insurance portfolios in order to spread their own risks better. The security challenges surrounding Europe are currently multiplying while the old Anglo-Saxon order seems to be fragmenting. Doubts and international politics form a dangerous cocktail.

The author would like to sincerely thank Ms. Valérie A. Deridder for her initial translation of this text from Dutch.


David Criekemans
Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Antwerp (Belgium)