November 16, 2017

One Year Since the US Election: President Trump and Transatlantic Relations

US President Donald Trump delivers a speech during the unveiling ceremony of the new NATO headquarters in Brussels, on May 25, 2017, during a NATO
US President Donald Trump delivers a speech during the unveiling ceremony of the new NATO headquarters in Brussels, on May 25, 2017, during a NATO

An alliance with the Unites States continues to be important to Estonia

The non-traditional positions on both domestic and foreign-policy issues that Donald Trump expressed as Republican Party presidential candidate and has voiced as president for the last ten months raise questions as to whether the leading role that the US has taken since the Second World War as the promoter and protector of Western values remains secure, and of how the actions of the US president so far have influenced relations between the US and its European allies, including Estonia.

America First and MAGA

In April 2016, Trump announced in a campaign speech in Washington that President Barack Obama’s foreign policy had been a total failure, leading to a lack of coherence or clear objectives in US foreign policy. Trump promised to implement a rational foreign policy if he became president, but at the same time affirmed that this would always be unpredictable and that important matters—economic and military power, trade, immigration, security—would always be decided primarily on the basis of the American interests; in other words, that the national interests of the US would define its foreign policy. He also made clear that the US would no longer dance to the tune of globalisation and that American happiness and harmony during his presidency would be founded upon the US being a sovereign nation state.1 Trump’s campaign led voters to believe that actions against globalisation and the political elite and actions that prioritised national interests and the wishes of ordinary Americans in both domestic and foreign policy would “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). Trump used similar rhetoric in his Inauguration speech on 20 January 2017.2
During the campaign, Republican security and foreign-policy experts wrote two public letters stating that they could not support Trump’s foreign policy positions and arguing that as president he would threaten US and global security.3 A year later, one of the authors of one letter, Eliot A. Cohen, wrote that: “He can read speeches written for him by others … but he cannot himself articulate a worldview that goes beyond a teenager’s bluster”.4 Former president George W. Bush recently gave a very forthright speech about the hypocrisy of Trumpism (without mentioning Trump’s name) and called for America to maintain its leading role in strengthening the international order based on freedom and the market economy.5 The Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain, made a similar statement a few days earlier.6

Does Europe matter?

During the 2016 US election campaign, it became clear that Donald Trump might have a drastically different stance towards alliances from his predecessors. Many of his statements, combining populism, isolationism, putting national interests first and, at times, extremist views, caused concern. For Trump, relations with Europe are not clearly defined and Europe is not at the centre of his foreign policy. According to him, relationships should be based on benefit. If the visible benefit of US interest and leadership in dealing with Europe’s security issues decreases, then US interest and leadership should decrease accordingly.

Europe has sat on the fence since Trump’s inauguration because the issue is neither his personality nor his non-traditional rhetoric, but what kind of foreign policy the US president will apply in reality. One might not agree with President Trump’s positions and statements, but it is not a good idea to ridicule them since the protection of Western values, peace and stability rests largely on his decisions. It is important to shape these decisions in a direction that strengthens, not weakens, the transatlantic bond and alliance.

The US and Europe have explored the state of their relations and disagreements in detail in the past and have gone through many crises together. The situation today resembles, for example, the serious confrontation between President George W. Bush and European leaders in 2003 and 2004. Just like today, there was talk in many European capitals about the US distancing itself from liberal values, and the need for Europe to take more responsibility, move towards greater integration and create a counterbalance to the US in solving international crises.

Last summer in Bavaria during the election campaign, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the times when Germany could totally rely on the US and the UK were over, and that Europeans would have to take their fate into their own hands.7 In turn, French President Emmanuel Macron said that France should assume leadership to fill the strategic void as the US was backing away from Europe, the UK has isolated itself and Germany was still hesitant to develop its military power.8

Development of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy is needed and must lead to practical outcomes if the EU is to realise its Global Strategy. But at the same time, it is clear that, even if the actions led by France and Germany boost Europe’s self-confidence and give new impetus in this field, Europe cannot fill the strategic void that would be left by the US. There would be no European nuclear umbrella and a European army, even if this idea could be realised, could not replace US military presence for many decades to come. As Frans Timmermans, the First Vice President of the European Commission, has rightly pointed out: “There are two kinds of member states in Europe[:] small ones, and those who don’t know yet they are small.”9

Has NATO Become Obsolete?

During his presidential campaign, one of Trump’s main arguments regarding transatlantic relations was that NATO had become “obsolete”. Trump repeatedly said that he might reconsider the US relationship with NATO if the European allies did not take more responsibility and start to share the burden, i.e. spend 2% of their GDP on defence and make more effort in the fight against terrorism. Even though his critique of the fight against terrorism was clearly unjustified (European allies have been on the front line, together with the US), the need to increase military expenditure is not a new topic and will not have come as a surprise to European leaders. During the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, the allies promised to strive for the 2% goal, but in many countries that objective will not be reached until 2024, and it is uncertain that all allies will meet this target at all.10 In 2016, the defence expenditure of NATO’s European members accounted for an average of 1.46% of their GDP, while the US proportion was 3.61%.11 Even today, only four countries in Europe (including Estonia) fulfil the 2% requirement, and it is certain that the issue will not leave the table as long as the US continues to contribute 75% of NATO’s military spending.

The statements by Trump and his supporters during his campaign left Europe and Estonia with the impression that we would have a serious security problem on our hands should he be elected.12 For Estonia, the lowest point came in the summer of 2016 during the Republican Convention, when Trump’s then advisor and campaign surrogate, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, answered a CBS journalist’s question about what Trump would do concerning the defence of the Baltic States:

Estonia is in the suburbs of St Petersburg. The Russians aren’t gonna necessarily come across the border militarily. The Russians are gonna do what they did in Ukraine. I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St Petersburg. I think we have to think about what does this stuff mean.13

Gingrich’s statement made the news, but – for Estonia – not in a positive way. An unexpected question arose: Could we be certain that the very clear and forceful statement made by President Obama in Tallinn [September 2014] about the US position, and the clear statements made by former presidents about the US dedication to defending Europe would continue to apply if Trump became president? There was no clear answer, even after Trump’s election and inauguration. More surprisingly, Trump repeated his previous message during the NATO summit in Brussels [May 2017].14

Article 5 is the Key

The European allies saw Trump’s speech at the NATO summit as a clear failure, a view that was also acknowledged in Washington. The Trump administration could not continue to make ambiguous statements if it wanted to regain the trust of the European allies, leading to a change over the summer which the countries on NATO’s Eastern Flank played an important role in achieving. President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence stated very clearly that Article 5 was sacred to the US, and that its decades-old policy would continue on the same course – for the first time during Trump’s press conference with the Romanian president in the White House,15 again very forcefully in the president’s speech during his visit to Poland at the beginning of July16 (one day before his meeting with President Putin), and also in Vice President Pence’s speech in Tallinn at the end of July.17 Today it is clear that the US military presence in Europe will not only continue, but will be strengthened with the approval of the European Deterrence Initiative (4.7 billion dollars in the US defence budget for 2018). The latest survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs also showed that alliances are very important to US voters and a majority (52%) support using military force in the event of a Russian invasion of the Baltic states.18

The events of the last decade have shown that North America and Europe must cooperate if we wish to maintain peace, stability and welfare on this continent, and contain Russia. During his campaign and time in office, Trump has avoided criticising Russia, and especially President Putin, and has placed importance on maintaining good relations with Russia. The Trump administration has mainly followed Obama’s approach to dealing with Russia, which is based on containment and deterrence, and cooperation in solving international crises where possible. For Russia, in turn, the US and NATO continue to be the main enemies, leading the country to display its military power and capabilities whenever possible. This includes both conventional measures and unconventional actions such as attempts to influence elections (the ways in which Russia influenced the 2016 presidential election will be detailed in the results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation) and support for extremist parties through which Russia is trying to influence domestic politics and weaken the unity of Western institutions. Zapad-2017—the joint Russian-Belarusian military exercise during which defensive and offensive capabilities were practised on a large area of land, sea and in the air—was a clear show of force against NATO. As long as Russia’s actions do not allow the West to let its guard down, security remains the main issue for Europe, especially for Russia’s neighbours. The transatlantic sanctions policy against Russia also continues, and will become even more substantial in view of the law adopted by the US Congress placing Russia in the same category as North Korea and Iran.19 It can therefore be said that the bond between the US (and Canada) and Europe remains strong in terms of restraining Russia, while Russia’s own attempts to break it have been unsuccessful.

Relations with the US Are of Strategic Importance

While Trump’s election campaign and his first ten months in office may have left the impression that he is a populist and a nationalist, the US has not retreated from global affairs. Despite the sometimes controversial rhetoric, there has been no great change in transatlantic relations. Guaranteeing the security of Europe in the event of a crisis depends on US political will and its strong military presence on the continent. We have to consider the possibility that (if he wins the 2020 election) President Trump could be in office until 20 January 2025. It is important to focus on strengthening the strategic alliance and on taking proactive measures against something going fundamentally wrong in US-European relationships during his term of office. Relations between Europe (including Estonia) and the US need to be adjusted to meet a situation in which the president’s stances and decisions on foreign policy could, for various reasons, change again.

For Estonia, it is important that the international relations and principles that have guided us for the last 25 years should continue. Today it can be said that the Trump administration’s strategic interest in Estonia and the Baltic region has increased. As noted also in Politico, Estonia has recently managed to create a very high-level political relationship with the new administration and the new Congress.20 In the past year, Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and Commander of the US European Command General Curtis Scaparrotti, and many Congressional delegations (e.g. Senators John McCain and Lamar Alexander, and Congressman Ed Royce) have visited Estonia. The foreign ministers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania met US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Speaker Ryan and the heads of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in March. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Vilnius in May and met the ministers of defence of the three Baltic states. President Trump met the Estonian Prime Minister, Jüri Ratas, during the NATO summit in May, and President Kersti Kaljulaid in July in Warsaw. Vice President Pence also met the presidents of the three Baltic states during his visit to Tallinn. The Americans have invested a lot of political trust and capital in these relationships, and interactions at this level clearly show that Estonia and the Baltic states are strategically important allies for the US. It would be logical that, in 2018 when all three Baltic states celebrate 100 years of independence, they should build on their successes and seek an official joint visit to Washington at the invitation of President Trump.

It should also be in the interest of both Europe and the US to reach a mutually beneficial free trade agreement. It is somewhat surprising that there has been no progress on this topic during Estonia’s presidency of the Council of the EU, despite the exchange of positive messages during the meeting between EU leaders and President Trump in the summer. Regardless of the further development of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy and new initiatives like Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the European Defence Action Plan (EDAP) and the European Defence Fund (EDF), it is also important to take cooperation between NATO and the EU to a new level while avoiding duplication of each other’s actions.

The continuous strengthening of deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank, on land and sea and in the air, should remain a priority. It is still undecided whether US forces will continue a permanent presence in the Baltic states after the implementation of the enhanced forward presence (eFP) of NATO battlegroups. The permanent rotation of US armoured brigades through the Baltic states should continue. There are also several important areas in which the US needs to be more closely involved in Estonia and the Baltic region. These include the prepositioning of military equipment in the Baltic states, securing air defence, assuring control over areas of operations, transforming the peacetime air policing mission into an air defence one when necessary, achieving the permanent presence of the US Air Force and Navy, and strengthening practical cooperation in the field of cyber security. Strengthening security cooperation between the US, the Nordic-Baltic region and Poland, and planning joint actions to deal with the challenges of the region are also important.
1 “Transcript: Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech”, 27 April 2016.
2 “The Inaugural Address”. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 20 January 2017.
3 “Open Letter On Donald Trump From GOP National Security Leaders”. War on the Rocks, 3 March 2016.; A Letter From G.O.P. National Security Officials Opposing Donald Trump, New York Times, 8 August 2016.
4 Eliot A. Cohen, “Is Trump ending the American Era?” The Atlantic, 12 September 2017.
5 “Full text: George W. Bush speech on Trumpism”, Politico, 19 October 2017.
6 “Sen. John McCain’s full speech at Liberty Medal ceremony”, CNN Politics, 17 October 2017.
7 “Angela Merkel: EU cannot completely rely on US and Britain any more”, The Guardian, 28 May 2017.
8 Natalie Nougayrède, “France’s Gamble”, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2017.
9 Speech of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, Future Force Conference, 9 February 2017.
10 “Military spending by NATO members”, The Economist, 16 February 2017.
11 “Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries (2009–2016)”. NATO Public Diplomacy Division, 4 July 2016.
12 Jüri Luik: „Kui Trump võidab …” Postimees, 2 August 2016.
13 “Newt Gingrich: NATO countries ‘ought to worry’ about U.S. commitment”. CBS News, 21 July 2016.
14 “Remarks by President Trump at NATO Unveiling of the Article 5 and Berlin Wall Memorials”, Brussels, Belgium. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 25 May 2017.
15 “Remarks by President Trump and President Iohannis of Romania in a Joint Press Conference”. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 9 June 2017.
16 “Remarks by President Trump to the People of Poland”. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 6 July 2017.
17 “Remarks by the Vice President to Enhanced Forward Presence and Estonian Troops”. The White House, Office of the Vice President, 31 July 2017.
18 “What Americans Think about America First”. 2017 Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy. Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
19 “Congress reaches Russia sanctions deal”. CNN Politics, 23 July 2017.
20 “How a tiny Baltic nation became a top destination for U.S. officials”. Politico, 29 July 2017.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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