Kenneth R. Weinstein: Trump Knows More about Central Europe than He’s Given Credit

This is a teaser of the Aspen Review 02/2017 ☞ stay tuned for the whole 2nd issue with the title Generation Lost & Found. Coming soon!

An Interview with Kenneth R. Weinstein by Jakub Majmurek

Central European nations should continue their advocacy efforts here in the United States, and work to rebuild some of the ties that have weakened in recent years. President Trump understands the fragile world of Central and Eastern Europe and has greater knowledge of the region than most Central and Eastern Europeans realize – says Kenneth R. Weinstein in an interview with Jakub Majmurek.

During the US presidential campaign nowhere the controversies surrounding Donald Trump were more intense than in the area of foreign and security policy. What was so offensive in Trump’s foreign policy proposals for foreign policy establishment – both liberal and conservative?

The vast majority of Republican-oriented foreign policy professionals rejected Donald Trump’s foreign policy vision because he rejected and mocked their foreign policy principles, expertise, and legacy. He argued their internationalism sold out the United States, whether through badly negotiated trade deals, one-sided alliance agreements or wars in the Middle East that, he claimed, left a legacy of ruin. He highlighted what he saw as the errors of the War on Terror, even arguing that the Bush administration deceived Americans into going into Iraq.

Many critics accused Donald Trump that he never did have any coherent vision of foreign policy. Would you agree with that statement?

President Trump isn’t a policy wonk. And, like most American presidents, he sought the office of president because he wanted to work on domestic, not international, issues. He didn’t study international relations, trade or security policy.  Nonetheless, he has an instinctive yet coherent foreign policy vision, one that is rooted in the tradition that my Hudson Institute colleague Walter Russell Mead has termed “Jacksonian,” a nationalist, populist vision first framed by President Andrew Jackson. This vision is distinctly anti-internationalist and anti-elitist. Jacksonianism draws its original support from the Scotch-Irish of Appalachia against the commercial classes of the East Coast. It believes so profoundly in American exceptionalism that it rejects the idea that America can export democracy.  Instead, it holds that U.S. overseas engagements should be in defense of U.S. interests. But when these interests are threatened from abroad, Jacksonian America is willing to fight all out wars.

How we can translate that philosophy into a set of some finite goals of Trump administration on the global stage?

The Trump administration will seek to rebalance what it sees as unfair trade agreements and will seek to get America’s allies, especially in NATO, to meet their commitments to increase defense spending. Trump is most concerned about ISIS and Islamic radicalism in the short term, and Iran and China in the longer term. Defeating ISIS will be the first major defense policy priority.  Controlling Iranian regional hegemony and stopping the Iranian nuclear program, a threat to U.S. interests and to our closest Middle East ally, Israel, is Trump’s second major priority. His third main priority is to rebalance the trade and security relationship with China, which, in Trump’s vision, has gutted our manufacturing sector through unfair trade practices while aggressively seeking regional hegemony through military buildup.

And where could we put Russia in that puzzle?

Into these priorities, Russia figures only as a potential ally – one whose value is questionable –not as a main focus.

Donald Trump’s supposed ties with Russia were one of the main argument against his presidency. The Russian issue is still coming back, more than one month after Trump’s inauguration. Do you think it will ever stop haunting his administration?

The accusations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election will likely continue to be around throughout the Trump presidency. First, this line of inquiry benefits Congressional Democrats who are eager to claim that Trump is not a legitimate president. So even if the President has reaffirmed the importance of NATO, is welcoming Montenegro to the alliance, and is encouraging exploitation and exportation of American energy resources, there are some who will continue to claim that he is a stooge of Russia.

You don’t seem to think that there’s some true in that claim, do you?

So far, the person who seems to have had the most significant contacts in Russia, Carter Page, is a low-level campaign advisor who barely knew the president.  The notion that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had nefarious meetings with Russian Ambassador as part of some broader plot is ludicrous: one of these “meetings” was an event, sponsored in part by the State Department at the GOP Convention in Cleveland, for the foreign diplomatic corps; the other was a meeting in Sessions’ Senate office with his staffers. Sessions, a former federal judge with a deep track record of integrity, knows that it is completely illegal to discuss campaign business in a Senate office. But because of all these accusations, Mr. Sessions was wise to quickly recuse himself from any potential investigations into this question.

Are all these ‘Russian affairs’ going to harm US image on the world stage?

The issue will only become harmful to the image of the U.S. if it can be proven that the Trump campaign colluded deeply with Russia – and nothing of the sort has been proven.  

And how in your opinion Russian-American relations are going to develop under President Trump? What does Trump want to achieve on the Russian front? Is it actually realistic from Trump to expect, that he can just start to ‘get along well’ with Putin?

I have never believed that President Trump would be Vladimir Putin’s poodle.  Yes, Putin got his attention by flattering him in the midst of a presidential campaign in which he was mocked around the globe. And, yes, Trump has business ties to Russia. But Trump doesn’t give anything away for nothing – and Putin, as Prime Minister Abe has learned in the case of the Northern Territories, can’t take yes for an answer.  Were Putin far more subtle and far less aggressive, he might be able to offer a serious deal to the President. But that would require Putin to make significant concessions – a sign of weakness that the old Leningrad hooligan would never do.

Nonetheless thing Trump said about Russia raised some red flags – specifically in the Central-Eastern Europe.   

The President has repeatedly denounced Russian behavior since he took office, whether over the Russian sub off the coast of Connecticut or over arms control treaty violations. I don’t see how Russia and the U.S. start things over – the chemistry is already poisoned by Russian behavior. And Trump seems to understand that Russia is of minor value in fighting ISIS.  So I would urge Central Europeans not to be too pessimistic about President Trump.  He has no interest in being humiliated by Russia.

Trump’s remarks about NATO raised similar concerns in our region. Is Trump administration going to honor the obligations embedded in the North Atlantic Treaty?

During the campaign, Donald Trump offered strong criticism of NATO.  He recognized that the organization was bloated, less than efficient to meet the challenges of the 21st century, “obsolete” as he put it.  Since the election, he has repeatedly reaffirmed his full commitment to NATO, and sent Vice President Pence to NATO headquarters to do the same. His major foreign and defense policy advisors – Tillerson, Mattis and McMaster – are strong Transatlanticists. Leaders in Central and Eastern Europe do not need to be worried.  But they should do all that they can to get everyone of the NATO allies to meet the 2 percent of GDP goals for defense spending that Poland and Estonia already meet. And they should think through serious measures to reform a bloated bureaucracy and inefficient decision-making process in Brussels.

Some opinion leaders in Central-Eastern Europe are concerned that Trump would like a new Yalta-like agreement between US, Russia and China, which would set a new division of the zones of influence between great super-powers. Do you thing that this is what the Trump administration really want? If it is so, does it not put Central-Eastern Europe in a very precarious position?

I cannot imagine for a second that this is what Trump wants. This is science fiction, or worse.  President Trump doesn’t trust China, has put it on warning with regards to Taiwan and North Korea, and has signaled his full support of our ally Japan against North Korea. He seems to have moved away from his fascination with Vladimir Putin, and a glance at Russian media makes it clear that the Kremlin’s previous fascination with Trump has turned into worry. Their initial enthusiasm has been tempered.

What is the place of Central-Eastern Europe in Trumps view of global order? Is there any? Many Eastern Europeans do have the feeling that for Trump’s White House their region is a kind of expendable. Is that feeling wrong-grounded?

Trump understands the fragile world of Central and Eastern Europe and has greater knowledge of the region than most Central and Eastern Europeans realize. His first wife, Ivana, is Czech; his eldest child speaks fluent Czech and two others are reputed to have learned some Czech from their mother and grandmother, and know the country of their ancestors first-hand. The First Lady, of course, is a proud Slovenian, and has taught her son, President Trump’s youngest child, the Slovenian language. But as I mentioned above, his greatest foreign policy concerns are with China, ISIS, and trade. It is likely that, at least for the present time, his interactions with Central and Eastern Europe will revolve around those issues.

What does Trump administration mean for Ukraine? Many pro-western Ukrainians have the feeling that Ukraine is going to be the greatest victim of Trump’s victory. Do you think that Ukrainians are right to be afraid?

In large part, this remains to be seen. The Trump Administration is still quite new and is still installing their people in key positions in the State and Defense Departments. There have been relatively few policy statements from the Tillerson State Department, but it is notable that in the space of a month, it issued three statements that reaffirm the sovereignty of Ukraine and condemn the Russian-backed violence in its east.

Certainly, Ukrainians should continue to advocate for their country in the same manner that they did under the last US president – and would do under any new administration – but there is currently little indication that policies on Ukraine will change in the near future.

Trump seemed to be quite happy about Brexit, he’s also quite willing to meet with anti-European, populist politicians like Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen. Some European leaders are concerned that new administration is going to play into EU disintegration. Is that concern well-informed?

No, this is excessive. First, he has not met with Marine Le Pen although he had the opportunity. Indeed, Farage supported him during his campaign and they’ve met since but I would not put Farage in the same category as Le Pen, his party does not have the history of racism and antisemitism that the National Front has. Trump has never said he would support anti-EU forces or try to destabilize the EU, but rather, more as commentary, has pointed to issues within the EU that have led to Brexit: the mismanaged refugee crisis, the legitimate desire to have border controls, the necessity to fight radical Islam. These are concerns shared by vast numbers of European citizens.

What are Trump’s plan towards EU?

The EU is not Donald Trump’s priority: he will look to forge bilateral partnerships with countries that are willing to invest in security and defense. Besides, most of the challenges faced by the European Union are linked to the EU’s own flaws, and can only be remedied by European leaders: it would be wrong to focus on the rhetoric of the American president.

In 2017 we’re going to have extremely important elections in France in Germany. Do you think that the victory of the populist forces can lead to a profound crisis or even possible disintegration of the EU?

Yes, a Le Pen victory would mean the end of the European Union project, and the triumph of populist and anti-American forces in Europe. Such an outcome would be detrimental to American interests. Le Pen is anti-EU and also advocates closer ties to Putin’s Russia and leaving NATO. Her rise is a testament of the failure of the French political establishment to deal with the dual challenge of high unemployment and the failures of the integration system. The next president will urgently have to tackle these matters in a bold way.

How do you think French elections are going to look like? Is Macron going to challenge Marine Le Pen in the second round? Is he going to win with her?

I suspect that, assuming Fillon stays in the race, Emmanuel Macron will win the French presidential election. He has run an astute race, as an outsider, dynamic and young, running against the two major parties and promising real reform.  Le Pen will certainly attack Macron for his past as an investment banker and paint him as the embodiment of the Paris elites and all that is wrong with Paris and Brussels. She will certainly draw some support from the hard left and easily double her father’s score against Jacques Chirac in 2002. But she will be seen as reckless as her economic platform, especially the prospect of leaving the Euro with no sensible replacement plan, will deter many voters.

How the new post-Hollande France is going to tread in its policy towards Russia, Germany, European integration?

There was a major discrepancy between Hollande’s domestic inability to pursue an ambitious reform agenda and his bold international behavior. On issues like Syria or the Iranian nuclear negotiations, France has often held a tougher line than the Obama administration and Hollande has not hesitated to send French troops to combat Al Qaeda in Mali. On the domestic front, he has imposed a state of emergency and hardened the French legislative arsenal against terrorism. But France’s economic woes have been a burden on this international agenda.

I would expect Macron to continue this policy of robust French presence on the international stage, especially if he manages to complete with a policy of reforming France’s rigid labor market and complex tax system. Furthermore, he is today the only major candidate to favor continued sanctions against Russia, which has led Wikileaks to threaten him, and Russian media to target him.

Marine Le Pen would clearly mean a more isolationist French policy: she would likely attempt to leave the EU and NATO, while aligning with Moscow, thus alienating partners like the UK and Germany. Besides, her statist economic platform (she is in favor of major increases in minimum wage, returning the retirement age to 60) would weaken France.

A Macron victory, especially in the numbers currently projected by polls would put a halt to the populist wave that has overtaken Western democracies in the last years. But if these last years have taught us anything, it is not to make any hasty electoral predictions!

How the possible victory of SPD and Martin Schulz would affect German policy towards Russia, US and Europe?

The SPD has traditionally advocated for stronger ties with Russia and to carry on the “Ostpolitik” of Willy Brandt. There are, however, some doubts that Schulz would follow that line. During his time in the European Union, he has come up against Russian interference, has worked to uphold EU sanctions on Russia, and may be far less willing to turn towards an accommodating stance.  

However, Schulz would likely take a page from Gerhard Schroeder’s playbook.  Schroeder ran against the Iraq war in his surprise, come from behind victory in 2002; he may well campaign by taking some distance from the Trump administration and refuse to eventually bring Germany to spend 2 percent on defense. He could significantly increase the transaction costs of assuring alliance unity at an already challenging time for NATO.  

How all that changes could affect Central-Eastern Europe?

Much of how the results of these events affect Central and Eastern Europe will hinge on how the individual countries react and respond to these changes. Certainly, a situation in which Le Pen and Schulz – both candidates seen to be more friendly to Russia than the current leaders of their countries – are elected would be likely to put the region on alert that the European bloc will be far weaker on the Kremlin than it has previously been. Sanctions on Russia over their actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine would be far more likely to be lifted, a reality that would displease Poland and the Baltic nations, but might sit better with nations like Hungary.

Central European nations should continue their advocacy efforts here in the United States, and work to rebuild some of the ties that have weakened in recent years. They should continue to increase the amount of money they spend on their defenses, and make clear to their neighbors, including Germany, that the continent must take more responsibility for its security.

Kenneth R. Weinstein

is President and Chief Executive Officer of Hudson Institute. He has written widely on international affairs for leading publications in the United States, Europe, and Asia, including Bungei Shunju (Japan), Le Figaro, Le Monde and The Wall Street Journal. Weinstein is listed in Who’s Who in America, and serves by presidential appointment and Senate confirmation as a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the oversight body for U.S. government civilian international media, including the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and Middle East Broadcasting. He has been decorated with a knighthood in Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication as a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

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