President Trump charged during the election campaign that U.S. allies were shirking their responsibilities in the common defense. The result, he said, was that America provided most of the troops and most of the funds to pay for international security in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. In addition, he pledged to scrap U.S. trade deals, asserting these had cost millions of American jobs.
Mr. Trump moved quickly to implement his tough rhetoric. He reasserted that NATO was outdated and needed to be revamped. He scrapped U.S. participation in the new trans-Pacific trade deal (TPP) and told Mexico and Canada that he intended to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump also advised Japan, South Korea, and Australia that he expected them to participate in confronting China over its aggressive forays into Southeast Asia.
How serious is this president in threatening to cut back on commitments to allies unless they contribute more to their alliances with the United States? One view was expressed by a businessman friend: "Trump is a businessman and tough negotiator who first gets your attention, and then he negotiates."
A darker view is that Mr. Trump and his circle of advisers are bent on reducing U.S. commitments abroad and relying instead on great power diplomacy to contain or defeat enemies that threaten vital U.S. interests. In this category are ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorist organizations, and what appears to be a hardening policy against Iran's revolutionary regime for its involvement in Yemen's and Syria's civil wars, and its efforts to destabilize Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
After World War II, Britain and France supported U.S. efforts to maintain western economic and security interests in the Middle East. That ended abruptly in 2003 when France, Germany, and other NATO states refused to support the U.S invasion of Iraq, which ended Saddam Hussein's threat to western interests in the Persian Gulf. Iran then emerged as the new danger to stability in the Gulf.
Europe is reluctant to join Washington in thwarting Iran's ambition to extend its influence over the Middle East. This includes threats to America's allies--Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel—and lends credence to Trump's view that Europe desires continued U.S. guarantees for its security, but isn't willing to join Washington in doing the same for allies in the Middle East. This reality is not new: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama encountered similar reluctance.
From Trump's viewpoint, Russia's Vladimir Putin could help in containing Iran. The president's closest advisers think a deal with Russia is possible because of its own interests in the Middle East. This is an area where Czarist Russia historically played a major role, usually at the expense of Persia, as it was known. In this view, Russia may be willing to use its military bases in Syria to help Washington defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but also to counter Iran's military support to Syria and pro-Iran Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.
What price would Putin expect from Trump in return for his cooperation? Reducing economic sanctions on Russia would be an opening bid. He'd also demand a free hand in the Black Sea, including acquiescence to his annexation of Crimea. President Trump's top military and intelligence chiefs oppose concessions to Putin, at least until he withdraws Russia's support for Ukrainian rebels holding territory in the east. Putin would also need to stop threatening neighbors in the region and harassing NATO forces in the Baltic.
Some NATO countries, including France and Italy, want to relax trade sanctions on Russia because of their business interests there. Europe's major player, Germany, remains convinced that Russia's belligerence in Eastern Europe will continue and insists that relaxing sanctions is premature. Trump would need to persuade Germany's Angela Merkel to support his view of Putin.
A crucial question that President Trump faces in dealing with both Russia and Iran is this: How much help can he expect from NATO? It doesn't help his case when the British journal, The Economist, carries a cover story titled, "An insurgent in the White House." He needs to think hard about whether the United States continues to need Europe.
File last modified on Wednesday, 15-FEB-2017 8:45 AM EST