July 12, 2018
Donald Trump took the oath of office as the President of the United States on January 20, 2017. By then, the Ukraine conflict had already turned into a frozen one and despite statements regarding non-recognition of Crimea’s annexation by Russia everybody knew that the clock could not be turned back. Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov had failed to ensure progress in Syria’s political transition despite frequent claims that “when they cooperated, the two countries could make a difference”. Washington’s relations Beijing were experiencing the usual ups and downs related to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. NATO solidarity looked strong. The JCPOA signed between P5+1 and Iran was globally endorsed as a good investment the exception being PM Netanyahu and some Gulf states. Emphasis on Israeli-Palestinian peace and democratic evolution had further widened the rift between Washington on one side and Israel and the Gulf states on the other. In brief, not everything was perfect; there was still a lot to worry about but dealing with unpredictability had not become the first and foremost challenge.
Then, with President Trump came the era of White House theatre with constantly changing actors and the stage managed by tweets not only confusing those on stage but also the audience. His relations with foreign leaders including allies have a roller-coaster pattern, the most striking case being the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Under his leadership the US has withdrawn from the JCPOA; damaged its status as an honest broker between Israel and Palestine; and, has launched trade wars against China and the EU. Mr. Trump’s constant manipulation of America’s international agenda, however, has helped him shift attention from his internal political problems.
In his address to the United Nations General Assembly September 24, 2013 President Obama said, “… the United States will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests. But we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals…”
President Trump has not been an ardent advocate of democratic values. Moreover, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Democracy Index:
“North America has the highest average score in the Democracy Index of any region. Canada and the US continue to perform reasonably well, but they lag behind many European countries, particularly those of northern Europe. Furthermore, the performance of the two North American democracies has diverged in recent years. The US fell below the threshold for a “full democracy” in 2016 and is now rated as a “flawed democracy”. The main cause of the US regression was a serious decline in public trust in US institutions in 2016. This year the country’s overall score remained the same, and the US remains in 21st place in the global rankings…
“… So far, his attempts to address the concerns of his voters have resulted in a further polarization of US politics, resulting in a decline in the score for social cohesion in the 2017 Democracy Index…”
President Trump has for long criticized US’ NATO allies for not investing enough on defense. He may have a point there and this could perfectly be an agenda item at the summit. However, if his claim that the US has paid and stepped up like nobody for decades also covers Afghanistan and the three trillion dollar Iraq War this would be exaggeration.
Regardless, no one expected Mr. Trump to turn NATO’s summit meeting of heads of state and government on July 11-12 into an open confrontation and public relations failure for the Alliance. His description of Germany’s relations with Russia was an assault on German sovereignty. Diplomatic tradition/practice clearly can no longer be a yardstick to judge his statements. Apparently, Mr. Trump also warned NATO allies that the US could “go its own way” if they did not meet his demands.
In the end, however, he said, that the Alliance is “very unified, very strong, no problem.” And, after his “pull-aside” meeting with Chancellor Merkel according to the White House he said, “We’re having a great meeting. We’re discussing military expenditure. We’re talking about trade. We have a very, very good relationship with the Chancellor. We have a tremendous relationship with Germany. They’ve made tremendous — you’ve had tremendous success and I congratulate you. Tremendous success. And I believe that our trade will increase and lots of other things will increase. But we’ll see what happens over the next period of a few months.”
Thus, his often repeated expression “we’ll see what happens” has now become policy.
NATO’s 23-page, 79-paragraph Brussels Summit Declaration says that NATO will continue to strive for peace, security, and stability in the whole of the Euro-Atlantic area; that its members are united in their commitment to the Washington Treaty, the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations (UN), and the vital transatlantic bond; that they are determined to protect and defend their indivisible security, freedom, and common values, including individual liberty, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law; and that NATO remains the foundation for strong collective defense and the essential transatlantic forum for security consultations and decisions among allies.
The Declaration also states that all Allies have started to increase the amount they spend on defense in real terms and some two-thirds of Allies have national plans in place to spend 2% of their Gross Domestic Product on defense by 2024.
Since no one except the interested few will read this 23-page Declaration, the peoples of the Alliance will only remember President Trump spoiling an occasion to display Alliance solidarity. Yet, his breakfast meeting with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg had started off by Mr. Trump saying, “We will discuss how we can make this summit a success, showing that Europe and North America are standing together.”
President Trump is highly critical of Germany getting so much oil and gas from Russia. Turkey buys more than half of its natural gas from Russia and is a major partner in energy projects. Moreover, Turkey has purchased Russian S-400 air defense systems from Russia and the government says this is a done deal. How all of that plus Syria and Manbij will shape the future of Turkish-American relationship remains to be seen.