Seven months into Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency the world is drifting closer to military conflict. At the end of June, Trump approved a $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan. He threatened nuclear-armed North Korea with a preemptive strike and on August 21 the United States and South Korea began annual joint live-fire exercises. Trump has also threatened to impose sanctions against Venezuela’s oil industry while “not ruling out” military intervention against Caracas. Throughout the summer NATO has carried out-scale military and naval exercises in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. In September, Russia will conduct its own large-scale exercises, albeit (with the exception of Belarus) within the territory of the Russian Federation.
If the darkening war clouds represent the response of an embattled and erratic president, they also reflect the growing power of the foreign policy establishment in Washington as it has become politically consolidated and emboldened by investigations.
On July 26 the FBI carried out a surprise pre-dawn raid on the Alexandria home of Trump’s former campaign director Paul Manafort. On August 2, Special Counsel and former FBI Director Robert Mueller impaneled a grand jury, a fearsome and potent prosecutorial weapon that could potentially allow him to strike directly at Trump himself, his family, and closest business and political associates. These developments indicate that an open-ended and ever-widening investigation that includes Trump’s business practices will continue independently of allegations of collusion with Russian intervention in the 2016 elections. Such allegations remain unproven and are engendering growing skepticism from knowledgeable observers.
The month of July saw the formation of the “Alliance for Securing Democracy,” a “transatlantic initiative”of leading liberal hawks and neoconservatives, charged with developing “comprehensive strategies to defend against, deter, and raise the costs on Russian and other state actors’ efforts to undermine democracy and democratic institutions.” The bipartisan Alliance reflects the estrangement of neoconservatives from the Republican Party as it has become increasingly dominated by its nativist, white nationalist base. However, it also signifies the further marginalization of the anti-war movement within the Democratic Party in which Russophobia has played a key role. On July 14, for example, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $696 billion defense bill, substantially larger even than the Trump Administration requested. 117 of 194 House Democrats voted in favor of the bill, which passed overwhelmingly.
Reflecting both its newfound bipartisan unity and also Trump’s growing weakness, Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” designed to punish Russia (and countries and firms seeking to cooperate with Russia) for its alleged involvement in the 2016 presidential elections as well as the annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in the Donbass. Facing a certain congressional override of his veto, Trump reluctantly signed it into law. The act also imposes new sanctions on Iran and North Korea. It threatens Iran’s ability to attract foreign investment, leading President Hassan Rouhani to warn that Iran could pull out of the 2015 nuclear accord “within hours.”
While the sanctions act further poisoned relations with Moscow and Tehran, it also provoked opposition in Brussels and Berlin because of its potential impact on Nord Stream 2, Gazprom’s proposed second pipeline underneath the Baltic Sea from Western Siberia to Germany. German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel protested that a key purpose of the act was commercial: to derail the construction of Nord Stream 2. Indeed, the House of Representatives stipulated in the act that the United States should “prioritize the export of U.S. energy resources in order to create American jobs” and that Nordstream 2 has “detrimental impacts on the EU’s energy security, gas market development in Central and Eastern Europe, and energy reform in Ukraine.” The European Commission (and German business) reportedly considered counter-sanctions, although an EU response would have encountered opposition from Poland and other eastern European member states that oppose Nord Stream 2. Indeed, there was no little irony in the fact that Trump himself, although strongly opposed to the act, had promoted U.S. LNG exports in Warsaw prior to the G-20 meeting.
Notwithstanding Berlin’s reservations, transatlantic conflict was contained even if the act will harm European business. Section 232 authorizes the president to impose new sanctions “in coordination with allies.” Section 223 removes language that could have blocked the Southern Gas Corridor, and the threshold for Russian participation to trigger sanctions was increased from 10% to 33%. EU Commission President Juncker declared that Europe’s interests had been taken into account: “The US Congress has now also committed to only apply sanctions after the country's allies are consulted. And I do believe we are still allies of the US.”
The sanctions act served as a reminder that transatlantic relations are organized on a hub-and-spoke basis. To be sure, the relationship has always required mutual accommodation, not least in the energy sector. where German interests have always been accommodated. During the 1980s the United States tolerated German-USSR energy integration, and the G.W. Bush administration acquiesced to Nord Stream 1. Such integration, a legacy of ostpolitik, represents something of a red line for Germany, not only with respect to the United States but also in the context of its own hub-and-spoke relationship with Central and Eastern European states, which resent their subordinate status within Euro-Russian energy networks.
Even as the United States and Europe resolved their differences over sanctions Vice President Pence’s visit to Eastern Europe and the Balkans provided further evidence of the ascendancy of the foreign policy establishment in Washington. In Estonia, Pence denounced “the specter of aggression from your unpredictable neighbor to the east.” In Georgia, he presided over “Operation Noble Partner,” a NATO exercise at Vaziani military base near Tbilisi, pledging support for Georgian efforts to regain South Ossetia from Russia and endorsing Georgia’s bid to join NATO. Meanwhile, Rex Tillerson appointed the hawkish Kurt Volker, a close associate of Senator John McCain, as Special Representative to the Minsk peace process. In August, 2014 Volker had called for NATO military intervention against Russian forces in Ukraine, and he has urged the United States and EU to impose financial sanctions and travel restrictions on Vladimir Putin, a policy that was not used even during the Cold War. The Pentagon is reportedly seeking authorization to provide Kiev with lethal weapons, including anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft weapons. In July President Petro Poroshenko signed a Law establishing NATO membership as Ukraine’s foreign policy goal.
All of these events indicate that the general direction of U.S. foreign policy will be characterized by strategic continuity, a revisionist and, in important respects, forward strategy that neitherTrump (nor even Obama) could challenge, and which is likely to continue for years to come under any successor. Nevertheless, Trump’s future is certainly not assured. Notwithstanding its ascendancy, the foreign policy establishment will never trust Trump and it has many and pressing questions concerning his rhetoric and residual capacity for reckless action, and possible mental illness, especially in the context of likely future crises. The Associated Press reports that Secretary of Defense Mattis and Chief of Staff Kelly, both former generals, have agreed that “one of them should remain in the USA at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House.” The ascension of the military triumvirate—Generals Kelly and Mattis alongside NSC Director McMaster--may serve to constrain Trump, but it will also contribute to the further militarization of U.S. foreign policy and, indeed, American society.