In less than 100 days’ time Donald J. Trump could plausibly have been elected President of the United States. Now admittedly this is looking less likely than it once did. Trump is badly behind in the polls. He’s spent the last couple of weeks insulting the family of a dead American soldier, calling on a foreign power to hack the emails of his rival and possibly hinting that rival political figures could be assassinated. His ratings amongst significant chunks of the American population, specifically African-Americans and Hispanics, are rivalled by the likes of Ebola. And yet three months is a long time in politics. Long enough, considering the level of media attention he can deploy, for Trump to reinvent himself. Long enough to for some unexpected event, say a major terrorist attack, to fundamentally alter the focus of the campaign. This means we still need to take the possibility of a President Trump very seriously, and need to consider what it could mean for European security. Because the potential impact is enormous.
One of the few things that Trump’s critics and admirers agree on is that he is unlike any recent Presidential candidate. This is especially the case with foreign and security policy. Since 1941 one of the key focuses of American foreign policy has been the defence of the liberal-democratic or ‘free’ world. There have certainly been exceptions to this, generally where American Government have concluded that in certain countries immature liberal-democratic institutions would allow Communists (or more recently Islamists) to assume power. In these circumstances they have often concluded that a military and/or nationalist dictatorship is preferable. But broadly America has committed herself to the defence of the liberal-democratic world, most prominently through NATO in 1949 (which is primarily an American security umbrella over much of democratic Europe) and through commitments to protect various far-Eastern states, most prominently Japan. Trump, unlike any serious Presidential candidate in my lifetime, has cast doubt on these commitments.
In an interview with the New York Times, published on 20 July, Trump would only commit to defending NATO members which had ‘fulfilled their obligations to us’. This is directly contrary to Article 5 of NATO, which compels all NATO members to come to the assistance of any other member which is attacked. He didn’t, in typical Trump fashion, go into details so it’s not clear how Trump defines NATO countries ‘obligations’ to the US. Perhaps he is referring to the NATO recommendation that its members spend at least two percent of GDP on defence. At present only five NATO countries (USA, Britain, Greece, Poland and Estonia) fulfil this criteria. According to NATO’s own estimates 15 of its members, including the likes of Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, spent less than one per cent of their GDP on defence in 2015. I can understand why this irritates many Americans – indeed I’m somewhat surprised this hasn’t become a major political issue earlier. America has committed herself via NATO to fight to defend much of Europe, despite the fact that relatively few European countries can be bothered to maintain serious armed forces. Indeed much of Europe, especially liberal Europe, has responded with an impressive level of ingratitude. Anti-Americanism remains one of the few prejudices acceptable to liberal Europe, where the view that American culture is bigoted, militaristic and uncaring is widely shared. And yet it’s almost certainly because of the strength of this same American culture that Europe’s children haven’t spent much time killing and dying in trenches since 1945.
But I’m not sure Trump is referring to countries which meet the two per cent GDP target – this feels rather two structured for him. More likely Trump will defend those European countries which he likes and sympathises with, whilst the rest with be subject to his ‘deals’. Trump clearly, for example, has some genuine attachment to Britain. His mother was British born, and Trump was concerned enough to repeatedly back Brexit during the recent EU referendum campaign. However I’m not at all sure that Trump has any real interest in, or concern for, some other parts of Europe. Most significantly I doubt he much cares about the Baltic States. This, combined with Trump’s obvious admiration for, and affinity with, Russia’s President Putin, could potentially have dramatic consequences.
Trump has a long history of making pro-Putin comments. In October 2007 he told CNN’s Larry King that Putin was ‘doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period’, whilst in July 2015, shortly after joining the Presidential race, Trump asserted that ‘I think I’d get along very well with Vladimir Putin’. More recently Putin has returned the complements, describing Trump in December 2015 as ‘bright and talented’ and as the ‘absolute leader of the presidential race’. This mutual admiration has already had policy implications. It appears that Trump’s allies worked to block an attempt at the Republican Convention to include providing ‘lethal defensive weapons’ to Ukraine in the party platform. When asked if he’d recognise Russia’s seizure of Crimea Trump replied that ‘I’m going to take a look at it’. Short of promising to return Alaska to Russian rule I’m not sure Trump could have done much more to please the Kremlin. It’s also worth noting that his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, used to work for deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovynch, a key Putin ally.
A combination of Trump’s disinterest in defending liberal-democratic principles, and his warm relationship with Putin, means it’s far from clear he would defend the Baltic States (and indeed other parts of Eastern Europe) in the event of Russian aggression. This carries two substantial risks. Firstly, perhaps a little counter-intuitively, it makes an armed conflict between Russian and Western powers more likely. This is because it significantly increases the chances of miscalculation by either side. The Russian Government knows that it needs to avoid a full-scale war with NATO. If such a war was fought conventionally Russia would almost certainly lose, and if it was fought with nuclear weapons everybody would lose. Now at present Moscow has a pretty good idea of where the red lines are. Ukraine and Georgia yes, but the Baltic States and Poland (integrated into both NATO and the EU) no. But with a President Trump, a man whose decision making seems to be primarily based on gut feelings, it would be hard to know. And this significantly increases the chances of Russia and the West stumbling, at least somewhat accidentally, into conflict.
The second big danger of course is that it would undermine the liberal-democratic (or Western) alliance in general. If America under Trump won’t fight to protect the Baltic, or other NATO members near Russia, will the Western European powers? I’m far from convinced. And if that happens then what, if anything, will NATO stand for? Parts of the NATO alliance have long been a fiction – the idea that Turkey would fight Russia to protect Estonia is fairly ludicrous. But this hasn’t mattered too much because America’s commitment has seemed secure, and the US is by far the most potent partner in NATO. If this changes then NATO, the shield of liberal-democratic Europe, could collapse either partially or completely. According to NATO’s own estimates the alliance spent $900,473 million on defence in 2015. However the same figures estimate that of this $665,688 was accounted for by the US.
Support for Article 5 in parts of Europe has long been shaky. According to a 2015 poll 58% of Germans, 53% of French and 51% of Italians don’t necessarily think their country should use military force to defend a NATO ally from Russian attack. However in the poll 68% of respondents, drawn from eight NATO member states, believed that the US would take action if Russia attacked a NATO ally. In the absence of American support it’s likely that the proportion of Europeans favouring military action in these circumstances would be even lower. As such a Trump Presidency could gravely undermine the security of liberal-democratic Europe.
A Trump Presidency would have enormous consequences. Its implications are truly revolutionary, for America and much of the rest of the world. For Europe it means that the assumption we have maintained since 1945, that America will be prepared to fight to defend liberal-democratic Europe, may no longer be true. As a result if Trump becomes President, or looks like he will, European powers should significantly increase military cooperation (though not political integration). They should also substantially boost military spending, despite the impact this will have on our social security systems. The first duty of any Government is to defend its people. The Governments of some European powers would do well to remember this.