WASHINGTON D.C., UNITED STATES 5 - 6 December 2016
www.nato-pa.int February 2017
This Seminar Report is presented for information only and does not necessarily represent the official view of the Assembly. This report was prepared by Steffen Sachs, Director of the Political Committee.
The impact of the incoming administration of Donald J. Trump on US foreign and security policy, and specifically on transatlantic relations, was the central theme of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s 16th Transatlantic Parliamentary Forum that took place in Washington, D.C. on 5‑6 December 2016. Other issues high on the agenda were the state of the North Atlantic Alliance after the Warsaw Summit and the challenges facing the Allies from the east and from the south. The meetings were organised together with the National Defense University and the Atlantic Council of the United States, and were conducted under Chatham House rule. This document accordingly highlights the key themes of the discussions without attribution.
Challenges to the Transatlantic Alliance
Participants agreed that a functional transatlantic link is essential for Allied security and indeed the world. However, while members stressed that more NATO is needed, not less, they also recognised that centrifugal forces are tearing at the core of the Alliance. Several delegates from European member countries added that closer cooperation among European countries is crucial as “more Europe is more NATO”. In this context, they also called for closer cooperation between NATO and the EU, and for aligning the defence planning process more effectively. US speakers welcomed European Allies’ willingness to invest more in defence, but emphasised the need to avoid unnecessary duplication as available resources are scarce. Although US participants did not dismiss the idea of the creation of a EU military headquarter, they also reminded delegates that NATO HQ is already short-staffed.
The Alliance in the wake of the Warsaw Summit
The discussions revealed broad agreement among participants that NATO Allies continue to face a broad range of security challenges emanating from the east and the south. Moreover, the terrorist attacks committed by Daesh1 in France Turkey and other places and domestic political volatility, including Brexit, the coup attempt in Turkey and the negative outcome of the constitutional referendum in Italy, compound the picture for the Alliance.
Speakers agreed that at the Warsaw Summit Allies have produced an adequate response to the external challenges by strengthening NATO’s deterrence. Decisions taken at Warsaw reinforced key elements of deterrence, namely capabilities and resolve. NATO Allies have pledged to improve capabilities. Among others, NATO agreed on strengthening the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force and the NATO response force. The prepositioning in the Baltic member states and in Poland seems on track, though one speaker suggested that there needs to be an appropriate reinforcement plan. Moreover, NATO is also deepening cooperation with enhanced partners like Finland and Sweden, the delegates heard.
In contrast, Allies need to work on messaging and strategic communications which is crucial in addressing the hybrid challenge. The United states and the Allies need to work together to develop their capabilities and integrate them to tackle the hybrid challenge. NATO Allies also need to look at the existing infrastructure and facilitate the movement of military assets; artificial inhibitors to moving military equipment between NATO Allies and deploying forces should be removed.
Delegates discussed the need to improve Allied, and indeed international, capabilities to prevent states from “failing”, including the prospect of establishing an organisation on both sides of the Atlantic that looks at these threats. In this context, a delegate reminded participants of Somalia, which the international community, and the West, “allowed to fail”. This generated huge costs in terms of lives, regional instability and destruction. In contrast, a speaker argued that it was not the international community that failed, but Somalia itself. He acknowledged, however, that the West does not know what to do about bad governance. Although the United States and other nations are working to address this issue, the net results are not good. A complicating factor is the involvement of many non-governmental organisations. Many of those are critical of NATO and do not want to cooperate with NATO. The creation of a transatlantic body could be helpful to improve coordination in addressing emerging threats, it was suggested. Such coordination is to a degree already in NATO’s framework nation approach, which aims at building integrated capabilities.
Challenges from the South
The instability on NATO’s southern flank was also covered in the discussions. The delegates were informed about the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force (MEST) which was established under the bipartisan co-Chairmanship of former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley in February 2015 to examine the underlying issues behind the volatility of the MENA region. The final report of the Task Force proposes that the governments and the populations of the MENA region must take full responsibility for charting a new, positive vision for their societies, delegates learned. Outside powers should help resolve the violent conflicts in the region and unleash the region’s economic potential.
Speakers emphasised the need for a global response to addressing the refugee crises which poses a protracted challenge. According to the UN, over the world some 65 million persons were displaced in 2015, 20 million refugees and more than 40 million internally displaced persons (IDP). Half of the overall figure are children. The refugee crisis is directly affecting NATO Allies. Turkey, a member state of the Alliance, is hosting an estimated two million refugees from the conflicts in Syria and in Iraq. NATO contributes in addressing the refugee crisis originating from the Syrian conflict by deploying assets in the Aegean Sea and contributing to information sharing in the context of Operation Sophia in the Central Mediterranean, thus helping to save lives of people at sea. The crisis has generated high political attention and mobilised political will in many ways. Nonetheless, despite the scope of the problem, solutions are becoming harder and harder to find. No one nation can respond to this alone. The United States is the largest single donor to international efforts addressing the refugee crisis; overall, the United States has earmarked USD 17 billion in Fiscal Year 2017 to address the refugee problem. US financial support goes multilaterally to international organisations and NGOs, and not to national governments. US efforts focus primarily on the protection of refugees (saving lives; no forceful return; access to a fair process by which they can apply for asylum) and on providing assistance (assist in surviving; meet basic needs: water, food, shelter; access to education, offer employment).
The Russia Challenge and the new US administration
Russia’s aggressive actions towards the United States and other member countries of the Alliance were a salient issue during the discussions. Allies need to think of ways to respond to Russian disinformation.
Delegates received a brief review of how President Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia and how he has changed the political system of the country. President Putin understands the value of the media, and of television in particular. To prevent any form of opposition and protest that could undermine regime stability, President Putin went after the free press early on in his presidency. The Russian government installed a system of total government surveillance and the pressure on Russian society increased in 2012 and has since then accelerated.
Public support for President Putin was originally based on the government providing a sense of stability and prosperity, but this now seems out of reach. The Kremlin has therefore adjusted its message to the citizens and now emphasises Russia’s role as a great power. This strategy has been successful to a point, although the economy continues its slow decline and the society become increasingly impoverished. There is, however, no danger to the political leadership as Russians are willing to sacrifice and used to hardships. The Russian elite does not have a plan how to get out of this situation but hopes that increasing energy prices and the end of the sanctions in place will suffice to solve their problems. Chances to modernise the Russian economy are limited under the current government. Economic development in Russia is traditionally viewed in terms of developing the capabilities of the state. However, diversification would mean that the state would no longer be at the possession of Vladimir Putin and his cronies. One speaker suggested that ‘Russia is a state that operates like the mafia, it is a kleptocracy’, adding that it is not the system in Russia that is not corrupt, but that the system is corruption. The political system currently in place in Russia is in a sense “worse than the Soviet Union”, as President Putin tries to establish a one-man rule. While Russia’s economy began to show signs of stagnation already several years ago, Russia is not at risk of running out of financing as the former Soviet Union did.
Speakers agreed that the sanctions put in place after the Russian annexation of Crimea have been effective, though their concrete impact is difficult to measure, as Russia was already in economic decline. The Russian defence sector has been especially hard hit as the sanctions in place also target dual-use items. Despite the sanctions and the impact of low energy prices on revenues Moscow will by and large be able to maintain its defence spending, estimated at between 15-20% of the state budget. This will allow much of the current modernisation programme of the Russian armed forces to be implemented. However, despite these efforts, Russia’s military capabilities are no match to those of the United States or to NATO, an independent speaker noted. To support his argument he reminded participants that the Russian navy, which primarily consists of nuclear submarines, does not have a large naval global presence while the Russian Baltic fleet is in a pitiful state.
Speakers underlined the importance of the Allies maintaining a joint approach on the sanctions in place and warned that the removal of European sanctions would undermine US sanctions. European Allies also need to reduce their overreliance on Russian gas. One of the possible measure Europe should contemplate is constructing energy connectors between, for example, the North and the South. Additional economic pressure could be put on Russia if the United States would ship oil and gas to Europe, thereby reducing the income Moscow receives from its energy deliveries to Europe. In this context, a host country speaker explained that the United States has become a leader in resource production, in particular in LNG where it is the largest producer. The speaker expected the incoming administration and the new Congress to focus on robust energy development, including in the Arctic, and on regulatory reform. NATO Allies need to develop different ways to have good, affordable energy for everyone and US energy deliveries could support European Allies.
To balance its budget Russia needs an oil price per barrel between USD 80 and USD 100, or perhaps USD 120 as President Putin himself has said. An effective way to strengthen the sanctions would be to bar Russia from the SWIFT (The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) international banking-payment system. Moreover, European Allies could consider establishing an organisation that monitors takeovers from key technology companies by Russia, similar to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an inter-agency committee analysing the acquisition of a US business by a foreign person on national security.
While the sanctions have been effective they do not represent a strategy and a comprehensive and sustainable strategy is urgently needed independent experts repeatedly emphasised in the presentations. This is important because the challenge posed by Russia would not disappear even if Vladimir Putin were no longer in power. Speakers considered Vladimir Putin in many ways to be a typical representative of the Russian political elite. The real problem of tackling an assertive Russia in the West was a lack of intelligence and lack of will, an independent speaker suggested.
Several speakers also offered their interpretations what Russian President Vladimir Putin expects from the incoming administration of Donald Trump. In their view, Moscow wants first and foremost the “de-militarisation of NATO”, especially in the countries close to Russia. Moscow is particularly concerned about NATO missile defence and wants NATO to abandon its plan to deploy the system. In addition, Moscow wants Crimea to be recognised of as a part of Russia and an end of the sanctions that have been evoked after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. More generally, Moscow wants the United States and Western countries to end their support for democratisation outside Russian borders.
In the Middle East, several speakers held the view that Moscow wants the United States to acknowledge Russian supremacy in Syria and thus implicitly recognise that Russia has equal standing with the United States in the region. Russia is likely to build on its increased influence there and will remain present in the Middle East. In the larger world, President Putin wants a free hand in Europe and Asia, which would allow him to install Russian clients in other countries, as he already does in the Balkans, one speaker suggested. Eventually, Moscow would like to divide up Europe and Asia between the United States and Russia into “spheres of influence” and unravel the system of values shared by NATO member states, the delegation heard. Another commentator stressed the potential impact of the United States’ future bilateral relationship on NATO partner countries like Ukraine. One speaker reminded the delegates that neither the sovereignty nor the territorial integrity of the former Soviet Union states are accepted by Vladimir Putin and the Russian leadership. While President Obama had noted in an interview that Russia has stronger interests in Ukraine than the United States, this view is likely to be shared by the Trump administration by a factor of 10, the speaker emphasised. President Putin is unlikely to confront NATO directly, as this would run the risk of triggering Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Russia does not want unpredictability, although one speaker cautioned that Vladimir Putin’s penchant for taking risks should not be underestimated. However, one of the most important issues in the bilateral relationship with Russia is the information warfare that Moscow waged against the United States and its core institutions and one independent expert suggested that from Vladimir Putin’s perspective, he won.
The discussion revealed a consensus that the bilateral US relationship with Russia will be a central issue for the administration of Donald Trump and that this will also impact on the Alliance. Despite huge differences among Allies, they held together over Ukraine. During the election campaign, Donald Trump downplayed Russian aggressive actions, for example in Ukraine, as well as Moscow’s suspected role in the election campaign. However, several host country speakers assured the delegates that the administration of President Trump will pursue a dialogue with Russia based on strength. It remains to be seen how the future US-Russian relationship will pan out. While the agenda in Washington will certainly be set by the President, Congress and the Republican party also influence the shaping of this relationship. One speaker pointed out that there are elements in the Republican party who are very critical of Vladimir Putin and the policies he pursues. However, other influential members in the Trump election campaign have been more positive to President Putin.
The US administration – paradigm changes in domestic and international issues?
One independent expert presented a rather downbeat assessment of the current political landscape in the United States and suggested that the country is facing a dangerous situation. The political landscape is divided as never before and reconciliation seems a long way off. One commentator warned that if President Trump would implement the promises he made there is a real potential for civil unrest as his campaign platform was very divisive on some issues. The speaker reminded participants that Donald Trump’s election campaign ignored the conclusions of a 2012 “autopsy report” by the Republican party’s leadership which had analysed the party’s defeats in the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections and had suggested, among others, to engage in immigration reforms. In contrast, the Trump campaign moved in the opposite direction, took a new look at the economy and trade, and talked in ways that were unheard of. There was also scepticism whether President Trump’s economic and financial programme, including the infrastructure programme, would have a positive long-term impact. Although large tax breaks may spur some growth in the short term, this will not last and an annual growth rate of 3-4% seems unlikely. Moreover, the incoming administration seems to be bent on financial deregulation and may roll back the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act which is an important part of the US stance on international financial regulation. Such an approach could risk triggering a race to the bottom of the broader international financial regulation. This will extend to energy and climate related regulations.
However, the United States is not the only NATO nation facing domestic problems, participants agreed. The divisive election campaign in the United States, and its negative rhetoric, has already had an impact on the upcoming elections in several European member countries according to one delegate. Others argued that charismatic leaders, who have appealed to a lost past and nostalgia, have also risen in other countries. Developments in several NATO member countries put their political systems to the test, according to one independent expert. The rise of majoritarian democracies like in Hungary and in Poland and rejection of globalism for nationalism begs the question whether liberal democracy is a fair-weather democracy and whether it is able to function in crisis, the speaker argued. Upcoming elections in other NATO member countries, including France and Germany, may produce similar outcomes. These developments have led to an institutional crisis in some member countries and could have severe repercussions for the EU and possibly also for NATO, the delegates were warned. The existing order seems to be teetering on the brink which poses a problem as NATO is an organisation of shared values, the speaker reminded the delegates. Consequently, a very different transatlantic order might emerge, with more authoritarian democracies. While it appears unlikely that NATO will disappear, it could become a “zombie NATO”, it was argued. There was also a consensus that how Europe will respond to its own populist challenge is important. European countries need to take into consideration the people who feel threatened by globalisation. There needs to be a rebalancing between social cohesion and neoliberalism, one speaker suggested.
Future transatlantic relations will also depend on the outcome of Brexit. While it is unclear what Brexit will mean for transatlantic security, it will have a negative impact on EU defence capabilities, as the United Kingdom has a set of capabilities that the rest of Europe cannot match, at least not at present, a host country expert noted. A non-confrontational Brexit will certainly be better for transatlantic relations overall. However, this will certainly depend on the outcome of the negotiations over the terms the United Kingdom will leave the EU. In this regard, there are many possibilities where the Article 50 negotiations of the Lisbon Treaty could become acrimonious, although the latest signals have been encouraging, one speaker commented. Recent remarks by senior UK government officials that the United Kingdom does not want to stand in the way of a greater EU defence integration were seen as positive.
Naturally, the likely foreign and security policy stance of the new administration was a topic that occupied considerable space in the discussions. While there was general consensus that it is too soon to know which course the Trump administration will pursue with regard to NATO and the security issues linked to the Alliance, speakers anticipated possible paradigm changes in a number of areas.
Discussants agreed that this was a moment of unusual uncertainty for the United States and for US foreign Policy. Major changes in US foreign policy usually occur only after significant events like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or the attacks on 9-11, delegates learned. In contrast, Presidential elections usually result in marginal changes. The election of Donald Trump may, however, have a major impact. To support this argument speakers reminded the delegation that during the election campaign Mr Trump had made comments that were either sceptical of or in opposition to some of the fundamental principles of US foreign policy of the last 75 years, including the United States’ role as mainstay of the global international economic order and as a mainstay, or one of the mainstays, of the global security order. The instruments successive US administrations have used was a network of alliances in the security realm. One reason to suspect that a major change in US foreign policy might be coming up is that the US public has never really “ratified” the concept of the United States providing international public good to the world. During the Cold War, US policies, and “services rendered” by the United States, were justified in the context of the threat the Soviet Union posed. This continued after the demise of the Soviet Union, partly because of inertia, also because a major policy change would have been too expensive, it was argued.
While Donald Trump has also commented that “NATO is obsolete” a doomsday scenario for NATO is possible, but not inevitable, speakers argued. There are several reasons for the status quo to continue, including the fact that the Republican party has historically been in favour of continuing US security alliances. While President-elect Trump has been partly at odds with the traditional thinking of the Republican party it is possible that he may change his views over some of his campaign statements. In addition, the President-elect is likely to depend on the expertise and advice of foreign and security experts. While the President-elect and key individuals in his closer advisory circle have little government experience, let alone foreign and security policy experience, the nomination of General James Mattis was viewed as a positive choice, given his experience and his knowledge of NATO as former Supreme Allied Commander Transformation. Other host country speakers reminded the audience that President-elect Donald Trump had contacted NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg via telephone and emphasised the strong commitment of the incoming administration to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. This notion was shared by other speakers who argued that it is “extremely important” to build a stronger transatlantic relationship.
Considering that slightly over 4,000 positions need to be filled, speakers anticipated that it will take at least 6 to 12 month to get a sense of the incoming administration’s direction. In the meantime, there will be a considerable amount of uncertainty, speakers agreed.
Despite all the uncertainty over the future course of US foreign and security policy, it is clear that the issue of burden sharing among NATO Allies will occupy a more important place in the approach of the incoming administration, speakers agreed. Delegates were reminded that burden sharing had been an issue in the election campaign. The exchanges revealed a strong consensus among participants that the new US administration will urge NATO Allies to increase their defence spending, which the United States regarded as a key indicator for Allies’ willingness to contribute their fair share to defence. European member nations also recognised that they need to increase defence expenditures. However, one speaker expressed the hope that the new administration will not solely focus on Allied’ defence spending. Any transition to a new US administration starts with this approach, but US administrations also learn that European partners are the best Washington has. In a similar vein, another participant commented that merely looking at whether or not each ally is spending 2% of GDP on defence would be short-sighted. NATO should not be considered as a transactional Alliance; every nation contributes something to the common goal. For example, the economic costs of the sanctions that have been put in place towards Russia are much higher for European Allies than for the United States.
Another area where the new administration has announced it will pursue a different course from its predecessor is trade. Many Americans regard free trade as a danger, delegates were reminded. Several other host country comments also suggested that past trade agreements signed by the United States were simply not fair. Thus far, public statements by Donald Trump lead to the assumption that he will be the first president since Herbert Hoover who is not a “liberal internationalist”. Several commentators suggested that the Trump administration will pursue a “new‑mercantilist”, “new-protectionist” approach towards trade. Others, however, doubted that the new administration will pursue the protectionist stance that Mr Trump advocated during the election campaign. However, the President-elect does not value the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement and has said that he wants to bring manufacturing back to the United States. Similarly, the designated US Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, has publicly stated that the incoming administration does not appreciate regional trade agreements, but prefers bilateral ones. Other contributors to the discussion did not exclude the possibility that the Trump administration could pull out of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Transatlantic trade, however, is a Congressional priority, according to another comment. The general consensus that emerged from the exchanges was that the new administration will seek to conclude bilateral agreements and that it will be very difficult to reach international trade agreements.
1 Arabic acronym of the terrorist organisation “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”