For most of America’s history it has been a nation of glorious isolation. Its founding principles eschewed the European power politics which ran so contrary to its enlightenment values and which were the source of imperialism and conflict. It was domestic issues which provoked the greatest psychological torment on the young republic.
Of course, the most significant period of its history has been, since it entered World War II in 1941 up until the present day, an era of global military, political and economic activism. But the election of Donald Trump to the presidency signals that the balance of US interventionism may be shifting once again.
From the date of its founding through the 19th century up until its entry into the First World War, American military activity was almost exclusively limited to conflicts on the North American continent, in its backyard in the Caribbean and minor sea battles arising from trade disputes. Public opinion was sharply against joining the Allied powers for most of WWI; even after it had intervened, anti-war sentiment only grew in anger at the scale of US casualties, hence the failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, and America’s subsequent non-participation in the doomed League of Nations.
It took the painful attack on Pearl Harbor to galvanise support for the Second World War sufficiently for President Roosevelt to do what he had always wanted to: stand with Britain and the Allies against Nazi Germany and her fellow Axis powers. Since then, the story has been one of continued development and dependable intervention in the world’s crises. It is a story we know all too well, but one whose time may be coming to an end.
President-elect Trump is hardly a towering intellectual, seeking to redefine US grand strategy in the way Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt attempted (with diverging levels of success). Yet he does potentially represent the most momentous change to US strategy since FDR. His vision of America is a rebuke to decades of global responsibility and interventionism.
He scoffs at alliances with Europe, South Korea and Japan, considering them in purely transactional terms. Free trade, for him, has resulted in a gargantuan robbery of American jobs; the benefits it has brought consumers in the form of lower prices do not concern him, nor does the fact that American leadership on trade has spread its values and norms around the world, bringing countless countries into its sphere of influence. His chumminess with Vladimir Putin seems to stem from the Russian president’s flattery rather than any appraisal of America’s strategic interest. And his apparent nonchalance towards Japan and South Korea pursuing independent deterrents underlines a worrying deviance from US and international consensus in opposition to nuclear proliferation.
Mr Trump’s apparent disregard for Nato is perhaps the most concerning of his positions. Clearly we cannot be sure of his sincerity, and many of his campaign ‘promises’ have already been watered down or quietly taken off his website (see: the wall and the Muslim ban). But his contention that America is paying too much to protect Nato members seems coherent with his general (and broadly consistent) theme of anti-globalism and ‘America First’ politics. We are yet to see his full team announced – which with a president so unanimated by policy details will be crucial – but some of the early appointments and mooted cabinet secretaries do not augur well for Nato. His National Security Advisor-designate, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has called for closer relations with Moscow and supported Mr Trump’s questioning of Nato’s utility, as has future Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions.
It mihht seem perfectly reasonable to pursue closer relations with Russia; after all, that is exactly what President Barack Obama tried to do with his failed ‘reset’ back in 2009. However, there is an obvious yet little-mentioned connotation to this: Mr Trump’s emphasis on having a ‘great’ relationship with Russia derives from his belief that fighting Daesh in the Middle East is the overriding imperative for the US, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Indubitably, this is vital, and Mr Trump would do well to recognise that, in Iraq, the defeat of Daesh is moving closer every day.
This strategy fails to comprehend two factors, however. First, it completely misses the fact that Mr Putin’s deliberate targeting of civilians and moderate rebel groups in Syria is in fact helping Daesh, by leaving it out of the Russian Air Force’s sights and pushing despondent young Syrians into its ranks. Second, and in broader terms, it disregards the huge strategic importance to America of preserving the integrity of Europe in the face of Russian aggression.
Nato, and the explicit security guarantees which America extends to its members, serve a vital strategic interest for Washington. The alliance assures the freedom, democracy and sovereignty of its members. One only has to contrast the vibrant, liberal, modern Baltic States (which would be particularly vulnerable to a US withdrawal) to the states within Mr Putin’s sphere of influence – Belarus, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, for instance – which conform to his style of politics: corrupt, repressive, murderous strongman politics. America’s abiding strength over the past half century has been its ability to spread and protect liberal democratic norms (notwithstanding well-known failures) worldwide. Its position as a superpower comes not solely from its military might but from its normative pre-eminence.
The greatest threat to European peace is that Mr Putin attempts against the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) something similar to what Russia undertook in Georgia and Ukraine. Admittedly, the circumstances were different: critically, these two states are not Nato members, and Russia’s interventions were obviously intended to keep it that way. Nonetheless, there are worrying harbingers.
First, as in Ukraine and Georgia, there are significant ethnic Russian populations in the Baltics: about 25% in Estonia and Latvia, and over 5% in Lithuania. Russia’s intervention playbook emphasises the use of propaganda, misinformation and covert action to whip up ethnic Russian nationalism and victimhood. It actively seeks to undermine stable, democratic politics in these countries and to aid pro-Moscow political parties.
Moreover, militarily, the Baltic States are extremely vulnerable. They share land borders with Russia, have nowhere to retreat to and lack the treacherous environment of Finland which kept the Soviets at bay for so long. For its part, Estonia does meet the Nato target of spending 2% of national income on defence, but there would be no doubt that Russia’s military could easily overwhelm the defence forces of the three republics rapidly.
This is one of the reasons why Nato has committed to stationing so-called ‘tripwire’ troops on the Baltic frontiers: Russia knows that to attack one of them would entail attacking British and American units. But, with the incoming, Nato-sceptic presidency of Mr Trump, the credibility of America’s security guarantee to these nations is put in serious doubt. He has threatened to not defend allies who, to his eyes, haven’t contributed enough, and his preference for strong leaders over sovereignty and democracy augurs ill for the Baltics’ protection.
To be sure, Nato members do free ride on American military might too much. Those countries not meeting the 2% target should commit to doing so, as Britain has. The real worry, however, is that Mr Trump’s criticism of the alliance is not simply an exhortation to spend more (something Mr Obama’s administration has done frequently), but a fundamental questioning of its strategic utility. This is so troubling because, as an alliance of deterrence, Nato relies on credibility – much like nuclear deterrents do in general. If Russia perceives weakness or a lack of resolve to adhere to Nato’s clause on mutual defence, it will be emboldened to, if not invade, engage in serious asymmetric operations to destabilise Europe’s eastern flank.
One might question why we should really be concerned about the Baltic States’ sovereignty. Other than the ethical and normative reasons outlined above, for the rest of Europe there is much at stake. If Russia were to take some kind of kinetic military action (however limited) against one the three, and Nato did nothing in response, its credibility would be shredded in an instant. If we are not prepared to defend these particular members, how about Poland? Or Denmark? Or Germany? Such conjecture is of course highly improbable. Yet the behaviour of Russia in recent years demonstrates that it is not at all invested in a peaceful, stable, democratic Europe – quite the opposite.
Europe therefore has to start to take its defence obligations seriously. It must impress upon the president-elect the paramountcy of Nato, but also reverse its own recent trend of continuous defence cutbacks. We have to make clear our resolve to punish Russia with sanctions for its violations of international law in Ukraine and Syria. Finally, Europe must stand up for its values far more muscularly, even if Trump’s America is to retreat into isolation. This means winning the air war with Russia, and countering the misinformation and propaganda spewed from Kremlin mouthpieces such as Russia Today. The crises of recent years have consistently caught Europe’s leaders by surprise. The next one must not.