The US policy in Europe remains unchanged: Pence and Mattis confirmed Washington's commitment to the decisions of the NATO summits in Wales and Warsaw on deploying military infrastructure in Poland and the Baltic countries, and the immutability of the approach to the Ukraine crisis. It is also known that the Trump administration is leaning toward maintaining Obama's policy to create a missile defense system within NATO.
A little more than a month has passed since the inauguration of Donald Trump. During this time, the new president has, on the one hand, demonstrated his intention to fulfill his campaign promises, including the promise to discontinue US foreign policy tradition, and conduct a policy to protect national interests in a very narrow sense. He continued to criticize NATO and the European Union, pulled the United States out of TTP, signed an executive order on building a wall along the southern border, thwarted the Mexican president's visit to Washington and had a fairly impulsive telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and especially Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
On the other hand, there was evidence corroborating continuity of US foreign policy on many issues. Trump had relatively successful meetings with the leaders of the closest US ally nations, such as Great Britain, Japan, Israel and Canada, while the key leaders of his administration, including Vice President Michael Pence, State Secretary Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, made fairly conventional US foreign policy statements. Of particular importance were Pence and Mattis’ remarks at the recent Munich Security Conference. In these first foreign policy speeches following Trump’s inauguration, they stressed the continuity of US policy in Europe, including in relation to NATO and the Ukraine crisis.
Literally on the eve of the Munich conference, the White House outlined a very tough stance on Crimea, which was in no way different from the Obama administration’s approach. During the conference, Vice President Pence expressed support by new US administration for the US and NATO decision to deploy four battalions in Poland and the Baltic States, and for the position that the responsibility for failure to comply with the Minsk Agreements lies with Russia. All of this disappointed Russian observers who hoped for a relatively quick improvement in relations with the United States.
Finally, the tug-of-war between the Trump administration and the political and foreign policy establishment of the United States which lost in 2016 reached the next level. The latter want to see Trump leave his post, or at least to create an environment of paralysis for him where he will be unable to carry out any policy at all. Shortly before the Munich Conference, the establishment won its first victory. Due to direct manipulation by the bureaucracy and the rampant criticism of Congress, the media and the political elite in general, Trump’s national security adviser and key member of the foreign policy team Michael Flynn was forced to resign less than a month after taking the post. In addition to the political blow dealt to the administration in general, his departure is a bad sign for Russian-US relations. Flynn was to play a key role in shaping the foreign policy views of the new president and, in particular, the opinion that Russia should not be regarded as a key enemy and that cooperation with it, especially with regard to fighting Islamic terrorism, is good for Washington.
What conclusions can be drawn from all these events, primarily, remarks by Pence and Mattis in Munich and the resignation of Flynn, for US foreign policy and Russian-US relations? And to what extent are the alarmist statements about the "failure" of a Russian-US rapprochement under Trump justified?
As ironic as it may seem, the continuity of speeches by Pence and Mattis in Munich and the firing of Flynn are interconnected. Both indicate a gradual strengthening within the Trump administration of the traditional Republican political establishment, whose main representative at the White House is the Vice-President. Deep down, the Republican establishment would like Pence, not Trump, to lead the administration either de jure or de facto.
Pence was directly involved in having Flynn fired and the appointment of a new national security adviser, Lieutenant General Herbert McMaster, whose foreign policy approach is much more consistent with the Republican mainstream than Flynn’s. McMaster has a much more moderate − compared to Flynn − approach to Islam, including Iran, but believes Russia is a main threat to the United States, European security and international order in general. The general had on several occasions spoken of the need for advanced containment of Russia not only in the Baltic region, but also in Ukraine. Pence holds similar views.
McMaster’s appointment also implies a stronger position for James Mattis, who was at odds with Flynn. The Pentagon chief didn’t share the previous advisor’s radical approach to Islam (although they agreed on the need to pursue a more hostile policy toward Iran) and his idea that cooperation with Russia in fighting Islamic terrorism is more important than its containment in Ukraine and Europe in general.
Thus, the center of power in foreign and security policy is shifting toward the Pence-Mattis group, which also includes CIA Director Michael Pompeo and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. This does not bode well for Russian-US relations.
The second sign of the Trump administration being gradually taken over by the Republican establishment is the forthcoming appointment of John Bolton to a senior foreign policy position, which was announced by the president himself. Bolton is one of the most notorious American neocons and a staunch supporter of the forced spread of democracy, whose views on foreign policy and international relations are fundamentally opposed to Trump’s approach, but coincide with the conservative Republican mainstream which has been ruled for 20 years by the neocons.
Apparently, a "grand deal" between the White House and the Republican establishment, including Congress, is underway: the establishment will not make any real attempts to impeach Trump, but the president will actually be alienated from developing foreign policy and making major decisions. Vice President and Defense Secretary will be in charge of making such decisions, while Trump’s people − White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and presidential adviser Jared Kushner − will focus on domestic issues and public relations. The role of Secretary of State Tillerson in this scenario is not clear. If Bolton – Tillerson’s ideological opponent − is appointed first deputy Secretary of State, the head of the State Department will also be restricted in his policies which are at odds with the traditions of the Republican mainstream. It is no coincidence that Pence and Mattis, not Tillerson, spoke on behalf of the United States at the Munich Conference.
However, this does not mean that Trump’s main foreign policy message to the effect that America should take care of itself and promote its national interests in the narrow sense rather than making others fit its value mold − will be completely rejected, and the United States will return to neoconservative hegemony. In the final analysis, neither Mattis nor McMaster, much less Tillerson, are neoconservatives. The first two are hawks, but pragmatist hawks, not masterminds. Rather, we should talk about the gradual development of a common denominator between Donald Trump focusing on national interests in the narrow sense and the globalist traditions of the republican conservative establishment. At the same time, these two components are identical and are based on one-sidedness, the maximization of US military superiority, maximum leeway with regard to defense policy and a down-to-earth approach to allied relations.
Based on this common denominator, and also the remarks by Pence and Mattis in Munich, the strategic foreign policy goal of the Trump administration can be defined as follows: to provide a new effort by the West − with the United States at the center − to revive its global leadership in material terms. This wording, designed to evoke an analogy with the Reagan times, is fully consistent with Trump’s slogans about making the United States great again, and carrying out the America First policy, and at the same time reflects the key ideas in the speeches by Pence and Mattis.
Both Trump and representatives of the establishment within the administration agree on one thing: it is impossible to lead and successfully deal with threats without being the strongest. Both camps agree that the active redistribution of power in favor of the non-Western great powers and the sliding of the United States in the last decade occurred because America spent too much in an attempt to remake other countries and was involved too little in promoting its own economy and military might. It's time to do some self-strengthening, focus on being the number one nation, not a leader. Hence, the economic nationalism of the Trump administration and its intention (confirmed by Pence and Mattis) to substantially increase military spending, and force the Europeans do the same.
Pence and Mattis’ speeches in Munich have created relatively clear idea about the priority of US threats to national security as it is understood by the new administration. They emphasized first the threat of international Islamic terrorism in general (notably, with Trump in office, the adjective "Islamic" in the phrase "international terrorism" is no longer a taboo) and specifically, the Islamic State. They have Iran in second place, which is seen as both a major sponsor of terrorism and a distributor of weapons of mass destruction and missile technology. North Korea and the proliferation of WMDs and missile technology as a whole would be third. Russia was seen as a challenge to European security and NATO, but was not explicitly referred to as a threat to US national security. This comes in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s approach, which officially equated Moscow to ISIS and the Ebola virus. Pence and Mattis spent incomparably more time discussing terrorism and Iran than they did Russia.
Notably, China was not mentioned among other military threats, which is somewhat at odds with the general anti-China slant of Trump’s remarks. This may be due to the Euro-Atlantic theme of the Munich Conference (after all, the key goal was to convince the Europeans of the continuity of US policy in Europe) and the fact that China, being, of course, a compelling challenge to the United States, is not a priority, especially compared to ISIS, Iran, North Korea or even Russia. Most of the US military and foreign policy establishment believes that they can take their time with China.
Nevertheless, over the past month, Washington has clearly shown that it will not give up its focus on military alliances in Asia, and the policy of the military-political containment of China will not only be continued, but intensified. The very first foreign visit by the new Pentagon chief was to Japan (not Europe or the Middle East, as with previous administrations), during which he reaffirmed the US commitment to the US-Japan defense treaty and the fact that it applies to its territories disputed with China. This was followed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Washington and his meeting with Donald Trump (the second one after Trump won the election and the first following the inauguration), who also confirmed the stability of the US-Japanese alliance. According to Japanese diplomats and experts, these meetings left them completely assured of US reliability as an ally (with regard to their policies with respect to North Korea and China). US-Japanese relations under Trump are even better than under Obama.
Both Pence and Mattis made it clear that there will be no revolutionary changes in US foreign policy. The United States will not abandon the alliance system in Europe or Asia, will not withdraw from Europe and will not curtail its military presence on the continent, including in Eastern Europe. Neither speaker mentioned "America First" in their remarks.
Again, this does not mean that the Trump administration will renounce its one-sided actions. There have been more than enough signs over the past month that the new administration will pursue a more unilateral course than the previous one, but only Trump sent them. For example, this includes a list of the countries whose leaders visited Washington during that time and met with Donald Trump: Japan, the United Kingdom, Israel and Canada. There’s no Germany or France, not to mention the leaders of the EU institutions or the NATO Secretary General. This one-sidedness can also be seen from the much more heavy-handed approach of the new administration to Iran, which was confirmed in the Munich speeches, which is not shared by the majority of US allies except Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Finally, two major changes in the Trump administration's policy toward Europe and NATO compared with Obama's speak in favor of a one-sided approach: a more stringent demand for the Europeans to increase their defense spending, and skepticism toward the EU and bilateral relations with the European countries as the preferred method of cooperation. The new administration makes it clear: support and solidarity must work both ways, and if the European countries, due to their military weakness, cease to be useful to the United States and will not make a fair contribution to their own security (at least in the amount of 2 percent of GDP), the United States may revise its policies toward them.
This is not the first time that the United States has presented such a demand to the Europeans. Similar claims, word for word − in an even tougher and more categorical language − were laid down in 2012 by the then US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. However, under Trump, the United States will be much more adamant on this matter than under Obama. Back then, Gates said this as he was leaving office in the Pentagon. Today, the Trump administration is starting with this.Otherwise, the US policy in Europe remains unchanged: Pence and Mattis confirmed Washington's commitment to the decisions of the NATO summits in Wales and Warsaw on deploying military infrastructure in Poland and the Baltic countries, and the immutability of the approach to the Ukraine crisis. It is also known that the Trump administration is leaning toward maintaining Obama's policy to create a missile defense system within NATO.