20 February 2017

Trump's triangular diplomacy in Europe

While most opinionators pondered what the hell the President thought he was talking about regarding recent events in Sweden, the Vice-President was in Brussels playing an interesting game with NATO. Contrary to the Trump administration's alleged Russomania, Pence reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to holding Russia "accountable" in Eastern Europe, but in keeping with Trump campaign rhetoric, he hinted strongly that continued U.S. commitment was conditional on other member nations contributing more to mutual defense. If you paid attention you might have perceived the glimmerings of an actual strategy. That strategy might be a European version of the "triangular diplomacy" Richard Nixon practiced in his dealings with China and the Soviet Union. Nixon's now proverbial pivot to China was designed to give him greater leverage with both Communist nations. Recognizing the rivalry between the two giants, Nixon knew better than to threat them as a monolithic Communist conspiracy, and a period of detente. Trump can't really play NATO and Russia off each other so ruthlessly since the U.S. is bound by its NATO membership, but Pence's performance in Brussels gives an idea of what the President might do to manipulate both Russia and NATO to American advantage. The most obvious thing, and the most likely successful, is to raise the specter of U.S. reconciliation with Russia, not to mention acquiescence in some of its revanchist agenda, in order to force concessions from NATO nations in the form of larger contributions that presumably would ease the financial burden on the U.S. Such a strategy presumably would be designed to work in the other direction as well, in which case Trump's attitude toward NATO might be determined by Russia's good behavior according to whatever standard Trump imposes. How far Trump might go using NATO to extract concessions from Russia may be limited by a desire to turn Russia from its apparent anti-American accommodation with other "authoritarian" powers (e.g. China, Iran) to a firmer ally in what Trump's alt-right advisers see as a "Judeo-Christian" rather than "western" coalition. Trump may depend on supposed "populist" allies in Europe shifting more NATO countries from a "western" to "Judeo-Christian" orientation, but until that happens Russophobia will be as much a problem for him in Europe as it has proven to be at home. In such an environment it may well be to his advantage if his administration continues to send mixed signals to Russia and NATO. If each side becomes convinced that the U.S.'s ultimate loyalty is in play, both may move to win it in a way from which, ideally, all Americans will benefit. Of course, this depends on Diplomat Trump being someone very different from Twitter Trump, or else on the President having the business sense to delegate this delicate work to people who really know their job. The challenge there may be finding knowledgeable people and credible diplomats who aren't Russophobes, but it might well be a simpler matter of getting diplomats to realize that their first priority should never be thwarting another country, but promoting their own.

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