Emerging ‘Trump Doctrine’ Toward Europe Upends Historic Alliance

  • New president puts premium on negotiations, not traditions
  • He says all nations have right to put their interests first

Tom Barrack: Trump Doesn't Want to Get Rid of NATO

For most of the past seven decades, U.S. relations with Europe revolved around a set of shared beliefs: Russia was the common adversary, Germany’s industrial might would be the core of the Continent’s economy and a unified Europe was in everyone’s interests. Donald Trump is having none of it.

In the weeks since he won the presidential election, the makings of a “Trump Doctrine” toward Europe appear to be taking shape. It includes a belief that the U.K. is better off on its own, Germany has stumbled as Europe’s leader and Russia can be a legitimate partner.

Piecing together Trump’s comments on Twitter and in interviews, officials from Paris to Kiev are left to worry that the new president views little of the traditional U.S. foreign policy agenda as sacred.

“Everything is about breaking the current rules and regulations,” Piotr Wilczek, Poland’s ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview. “Trump has a kind of post-political, very unique approach. Especially for very experienced diplomats, it’s quite a shock. We are all thinking how do we deal with this administration?”

That question has added urgency as France and Germany, the two biggest members still committed to the European Union, face elections this year in which success for nationalist parties could further erode decades of work toward a unified continent. Trump reinforced his foreign policy outlook in his inauguration address Friday, saying his administration would seek “friendship and goodwill” with other countries but “it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

‘Profoundly Unsettling’

“He has a worldview, and I think it’s fair to say it’s a worldview that does not put a premium on alliances but puts a premium on transactions and what helps you in transactions,” Dennis Ross, who served as a foreign-policy adviser to three U.S. presidents, said before Trump spoke.

Trump’s approach particularly unnerves smaller countries, which find themselves strengthened economically and politically by historic alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the EU, two institutions the U.S. president has criticized. If that framework erodes, they could find themselves defenseless against an increasingly expansionist Russia and facing a new regime of trade barriers after decades of economic integration.

Both allies and adversaries have had to react to Trump’s often contradictory statements about where he’ll take U.S. relations with the world.

In a joint interview published last weekend by the Times of London and Germany’s Bild, Trump poked at historic fault lines in Europe by criticizing Germany’s dominance of the EU and the failure of most NATO allies to meet the alliance’s target for defense spending. He went on to fault German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s handling of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Especially concerning for a Europe unsettled by Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and its bombing campaign in Syria, Trump said “I start off trusting both” Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet he went on to call NATO “very important,” said he respects Merkel, and professed to feel “very strongly toward Europe.”

Read how the Kremlin fears Trump may not be a great deal after all.

A Trump transition adviser, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said Trump’s criticism of the NATO alliance is only common sense, and rights a historical unfairness in the alliance. Officials in both the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations long complained about underspending by their European allies.

Only five of NATO’s 28 members currently meet its target to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. European allies can’t fail to live up to their commitments and still demand the U.S. honor them, according to the adviser.

While Europe frets, provoking anxiety may ultimately be a central part of Trump’s plan, according to Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who advised Trump’s transition team. He pointed to recent promises from NATO countries to boost defense spending as a possible sign that Trump is gaining leverage with his remarks and getting what he wants.

Uncertainty as Strategy

“Our natural response is to assume these guys have no strategy and that this is chaotic, but I’m not sure the creation of fear, uncertainty and doubt isn’t a strategy,” Dubowitz said. “Trump seems to like to keep everybody off balance.”

Trump has seemed to relish challenging the norms that everyone else takes for granted. He has steadfastly refused to telegraph his priorities or clear up the contradictions in his stance.

“I don’t go out and say, ‘I’m gonna do this — I’m gonna do —’, I gotta do what I gotta do,” he said, according to the Times of London. “But I don’t wanna play. Who plays cards where you show everybody the hand before you play it?”

And it’s not just the Europeans who are on guard. Trump upended decades of policy in the days after his election by accepting a call from Taiwan’s president and repeatedly questioning both the “One-China” policy and trade ties that have been the base of relations with Beijing.

China, in response, has sought to head off any notion that foreign policy is one big negotiation.

"Not everything in the world can be bargained or traded off," spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing on Jan. 16.

Nominees at Odds

It hasn’t helped clarify the Trump administration’s policies that his nominees for senior national security positions have contradicted his public views. His pick for defense secretary, James Mattis, said there was little room for talks with Russia and argued against tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, something Trump once vowed he’d do on his first day in office. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, called U.S. commitments to defend NATO allies “inviolable.”

The Obama administration, which would normally have been engaged in frequent talks with the new president’s transition team, wasn’t able to provide much help either. Asked at an event on Jan. 10 how the transition was going, departing Secretary of State John Kerry said it was proceeding smoothly “because there’s not an enormous amount of it.”

Behind all the contradictions there’s one constant -- Trump’s "America First" pledge, which favors nation-to-nation deals over fidelity to long-running alliances and traditions. The idea was codified on the White House website when Trump was sworn in, with a statement that said defeating the Islamic State and other “radical Islamic terror groups” would be the top U.S. priority.

The statement also repeated campaign pledges to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiate NAFTA and crack down on countries that violate trade deals.

“The connection with Europe will hopefully not be severed, but it will be thinner, leaner and weaker than up until now,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. He said Ukraine may be “relegated to a regional and European problem. It will be Mrs. Merkel’s headache.”

Most of all, politicians and analysts are realizing Trump’s unpredictable approach may be the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy for at least the next four years.

“Everyone is holding out hope that Trump becomes ‘more normal,”’ said Derek Chollet, a former Obama administration official who’s a senior adviser at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“First it was the weight of being nominee would temper his behavior,” Chollet said. “Then it was being president-elect would temper his behavior, and now it’s, well, once he gets into the Oval Office and the weight of the presidency will temper his behavior. That hasn’t really happened.”

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