Even though awareness of Russia is rising, the frontline states in Europe are not safe.
Last year’s Lennart Meri Conference took place in an optimistic mood. Hillary Clinton seemed the likely winner of the US presidential election, promising business as usual for American allies. Britain looked likely to stay in the European Union. French and German politics looked stable.
Then the world turned upside down.
Britain voted for Brexit. Donald Trump won the American presidential election with a campaign based on shameless populism and invention. The French election was nerve-wracking, with all but one of the leading candidates making explicitly pro-Kremlin statements. In April, we were within only a couple of percentage points of a run-off between the Russian-financed Marine Le Pen and the surging ultra-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
In May we are breathing more easily. The main reason is in Washington, DC.
Mr Trump’s administration is settling down quickly. The main problem is not excessive radicalism, but paralysis. Unable to get legislation through Congress, with the senior ranks of his administration still largely unfilled, and constrained by the same foreign-policy problems that bedevilled his predecessors, the White House is reduced to making largely symbolic gestures (mostly political, some military) in order to create at least an impression of toughness and decisiveness.
But paralysis is better than revolution. Mr Trump no longer thinks that NATO is obsolete. He no longer thinks that a deal with Vladimir Putin will sort out the world’s problems. He no longer wants to launch a trade war.
We still do not know how the Trump White House will respond in a crisis. But even here the signs are encouraging. His top team—James Mattis, H R McMaster and Rex Tillerson—are all reassuringly recognisable figures. American allies are right to be concerned about the state of the world. But we no longer need to be alarmed. We should listen respectfully to the administration’s critics—after all, they will be back in power again one day—without necessarily believing everything they say.
The demons are also receding in Europe. Brexit is going to be damaging, both for Britain and for the EU-27. My country’s vote on 23 June 2016 will always be one of the saddest days of my life. But the likelihood of a “hard Brexit”, in which a weak government adopts a catastrophic policy to appease a small number of well-placed hardline supporters, is receding fast.
In next month’s election Theresa May is overwhelmingly likely to come back as prime minister with the mandate she lacked after taking over from David Cameron. This will give her the authority to make concessions on payments to Brussels, on transition periods, and on the authority of the European Court of Justice, all of which are essential ingredients of an orderly Brexit.
Meanwhile the German populists are in disarray, the European economy is picking up, Russia is cutting its defence spending, and NATO is plugging the most obvious gaps in the security of the Baltic States. The Lennart Meri Conference rightly concentrates on problems. But we should spare a little time to celebrate what has gone right (or at least what has not gone wrong).
My first worry is that our political and economic system is dealing with the symptoms of the problems we face, but not the causes.
Take Donald Trump’s election. He rode to power on a wave of genuine dissatisfaction about the way the US has been run since the end of the Cold War. His supporters don’t feel that the costs and benefits of globalisation are fairly shared. They do feel that the rest of the world takes the US for granted.
I have little confidence that Mr Trump will honour the promises he made. Nobody could. Nothing is going to bring back well-paid manufacturing jobs in the old industries of the American heartland. A dodgy tycoon is an unlikely standard-bearer for the cause of economic justice.
Moreover, the world is going to remain a dangerous place, and the US will always face painful and costly foreign-policy dilemmas. Nothing Mr Trump can do will change that. True, it may be that his administration will scare some allies into paying a bit more for their defence. But I doubt that American voters in three years’ time will be nodding in decisive approval that five or six more NATO countries have reached the 2% of GDP target a bit faster than they would have done otherwise.
Similarly, Brexit is not going to make angry British voters feel that they have really “taken back control”. There will be less money for public services, not more. Britain will still be bound by international agreements. The benefits of Brexit, such as they are, are more likely to accrue to fleet-footed financiers and nimble entrepreneurs, who did pretty well out of the previous arrangements.
The question, therefore, is where angry voters will turn next. The answer may be “nowhere”. The American political system does not encourage outsiders, and it rewards incumbents. So the chances of a new, “mega-Trump”—a still more radical populist outsider—are slim. He may disappoint everyone but still win a second term.
The same is true of the British electoral system. Brexit will annoy Leave voters because it changes too little, and Remain voters because it changes too much. We may get a realignment of the Left, with the Leave voters coalescing round a pro-Brexit Labour Party, and the pro-European voters bolstering the resurgent Liberal Democrats. That may bring clarity, but not change. Splitting the opposition vote will guarantee that the Conservatives stay in power for a generation.
Nonetheless, unhappiness and outright anger among the 20–30% of the population who feel the system does not work for them will remain a toxic factor in the politics of all Western countries—and be fertile ground for outsiders wanting to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt.
That leads on to the other big toxic factor: Russia. In the past 12 months, the Kremlin has spectacularly intervened in Western politics and—on the face of it—paid little price for doing so. The American investigations are moving slowly and are plagued by partisan squabbles. Voters there, and in France, who are fed up with their own countries’ elites do not seem to mind Mr Putin’s plutocracy, or its attempts to peddle influence abroad.
Yet the tide is turning. Only five years ago, I was in Berlin, meeting senior German officials who laughed out loud when I warned them that Russia would attack their political system. Nobody is laughing now—Russian influence is taken with grim seriousness not only in Germany but also in Britain, Denmark, France, and other previously complacent Western countries.
That has destroyed one of the Kremlin’s most potent advantages. When nobody was expecting hacking/leaking attacks, or subsidies to favourite politicians, these tactics were much more effective. Now, at least in northern and Eastern Europe, Russia has lost the element of surprise. This does not mean that Russian mischief-making has become ineffective. But its room for manoeuvre is reduced.
Secondly, the technology companies are realising that they have responsibilities to wider society. Until recently, Facebook and Google reacted with infuriating arrogance and complacency when I and others warned them that they were being used by Russia and other hostile states. Now they are deeply worried about disinformation and propaganda, and the potential for civil and even criminal litigation for their collusion in spreading it. They have not yet deployed proper countermeasures—but plenty of plans are afoot.
The combination of government and business awareness about the threat from Russia is highly positive. It does not mean that the frontline states of Europe are safe. Faced with a closing window of opportunity, as his economy weakens and the outside world becomes more resilient and united, Vladimir Putin may decide he has nothing to lose by taking some risks. If so, he still has plenty of cards to play
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.