The continent may have more to fear from American foreign policy than from Russianby / November 9, 2016 / Leave a comment
Had Hillary Clinton become the 45th president of The United States of America, it would all have been so simple. She would have been a president who had been part of the institutional furniture for 30 years who was never knowingly caught without a policy—on anything—and would have slipped easily into the established assumptions of global strategic calculus. But she didn’t, and now we’re in uncharted territory.
As Donald Rumsfeld would enjoin us to do, let’s look at the known knowns as we try to find our way. The first of those when we consider the defence of Europe is that we face a revanchist Russia in the middle of a programme to update both its conventional and nuclear military inventories. A Russia, moreover, that has annexed The Crimea, intervened in Syria and de-stabilised Ukraine.
Yet closer examination reveals each of these to be precisely calibrated adventures designed to test western—essentially American—resolve but not to provoke a response. The annexation of The Crimea was a return to the territorial status quo ante and wrapped in a cloak of consensual politics. In Syria, the Russians have applied just enough force to make a difference but not enough to imply any enduring commitment. However, it is in Ukraine that we see the most instructive insights. Russia has avoided conventional confrontation and shown remarkable invention in coming up with what has now entered the lexicon as hybrid warfare. Unattributable operations conducted by ubiquitous “little green men” wearing neither rank nor insignia, backed by cyber attacks against infrastructure and a shrill media campaign have combined to disorient legitimate government but not pose a direct military threat. There is a temptation to see Russian actions as uncharacteristically subtle, but surely there is a simpler explanation: for all its stridency, it is an expression of weakness.
Quite simply, for as long as America offers a security guarantee to Europe, through the agency of NATO, Russia can huff and puff but it knows that its reduced economic circumstances means that it can never contemplate a conventional conflict that it could not sustain. For all its cleverness, hybrid warfare is a doctrine of the dispossessed and it could not prevail against the strategic certitude of American power.
So much for the known knowns—what about the known unknowns, foremost amongst which is Trump and foreign policy? We know that the President Elect dislikes freeloading foreigners and we also know—thanks to Gideon Rachman’s latest book: Easternisation—that in 2000 America accounted for about 50 per cent of NATO spending, a total that had risen to 70 per cent by 2012. So if the recurring Trump campaign themes of nationalism, protectionism and charity beginning at home are to find any expression in foreign policy then an obvious place to start would be in demanding that the decadent and complacent Europeans stump up for their own defence, or face the consequences.
In many ways the US constitution is designed for Trump. The checks and balances to executive power were designed to limit monarchical excess and may face their greatest test during his incumbency. But as it stands today, Europe may have more to fear from American foreign policy than from Russian, and we haven’t even got on to the unknown unknowns yet.