Trump after 100 days: innovation, unpredictability, uncertainty

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On the new U.S. commander-in-chief’s understanding of global security and his suspicious relationship towards NATO and the EU. Read another article of our series «100 Days Trump».

After telling everyone that he knows everything better than anyone else, improvisation characterizes Trump’s first 100 days in the White House. Instead of presenting a long-term vision for U.S. foreign and security (besides American greatness), the Trump administration acts and reacts to world events and crises sporadically and what appears to be randomly.  When professional politicians and bureaucrats improvise, we can assume that their rhetoric, policy choices and political behavior still contain elements of predictability. We can also assume that based on their revealed preferences, we also know what their long-term (strategic) visions might be. However, Trump seems to think that unpredictability is a great ingredient for policy-making.

While many things have been said and done over the last 100 days that do not resonate much with what Trump has said before his inauguration or in the first thirty or so days in office, one thing has remained constant: his vulnerable ego. The way he presents himself in interviews, at press conferences or on twitter, portrays a man who does not want to be perceived as weak, soft, or contemplative. His presidency as well as his election campaign instead referred uncountable times to greatness. Everything seems great. Or disastrous. There is not much that can fall in-between. This kind of ego seems not very interested in looking for, building and sustaining (domestic or) international coalitions.

The combination of lack of vision and a vulnerable ego have led to some roller coaster rides for European national governments and U.S. administrators who have long worked on European policy items. Some of these neck bending roller coaster rides manifest themselves when Trump tries to make sense of the U.S.’ relationship with NATO and the EU.

Trump called NATO obsolete during his campaign, which let national governments across Europe wonder about American security guarantees and American security preferences. And he did not seem to care whether allies are alarmed and confused about US’s unpredictable behavior within the Alliance. Instead, he – at least – rhetorically invested in strong relations with Russia. Since Trump took office, however, his relationship with Russia has become tenser because of an US missile strike on a Syrian airfield (on a side note: these missiles did nothing to change the course of the civil war).

Since these tensions, Trump – for now – considers NATO «no longer obsolete». At a press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump went as far as to say «I said it [NATO] was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.» As if NATO has transformed since he took office. What might have changed is that he has learned a bit more about this successful military alliance. He complained that U.S. allies do not contribute their fair share to NATO, a U.S. complaint that has been voiced for many decades. After finding out that this trend is about to be reversed, if only slowly, he now wants to take credit for NATO member states increasing (or at least not decreasing) their defense spending. Unfortunately for him, this trend has started before his tenure.

Most NATO member will shake their heads and go along with whatever US president is in power, because let’s face it, the U.S. is the strongest ally by far. But so far, Trump does not present them with new impetus for the Alliance. The little he says about NATO, he seems to suggest that NATO should engage in counterterrorism efforts, which should be on top of its priority list. Little did he seem to know that NATO has covered counterterrorism measures since much before he even ran for the U.S. presidency. Just as a reminder, NATO’s operation in Afghanistan was the largest military operation in NATO’s history. And given the terrorist attacks on European soil, counterterrorism is in the interest of Europeans in any case. Since he became aware of this, he framed his discovery as having now fixed NATO.

His understanding and engagement with the EU went through similar dynamics so far. Once upon a time, he cheered the UK’s exit from the EU, called the EU a «vehicle for Germany», proclaimed that he did not want to negotiate with the EU as a whole but instead with member states bilaterally, and was looking towards Russia. Since then, he has called the EU «wonderful» and praised its achievements. Did this rhetorical shift come about after Mike Pence told Trump of his visit in Brussels? Or have his new advisors – after all, we should not forget that the administration has already witnessed a re-shifting of Trump’s aides – anything to do with it? It might be a little too much to assume that someone like Mike Pence can make a pragmatist out of Donald Trump. But as for many things concerning Trump, it is still too early to tell.  But we can say with certainty for now, that Trump’s unpredictable and non-reasoned rhetorical and policy choices have created mistrust across the Atlantic.

Text written by Stephanie Hofmann, Associate Professor in International Relations/Political Science at The Graduate Institute, Geneva.

 

Image: commons.wikimedia.org, by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from Washington D.C, United States.

 

In den nächsten zwei Wochen werden wir mit der Reihe «100 Tage Trump» in unterschiedlichen Beiträgen die neue amerikanische Exekutive und deren Präsident, Donald Trump, ins Zentrum der Aufmerksamkeit rücken. Aus vielerlei Blickwinkeln analysieren unsere Blogger, wie Amerika dabei vorgeht «to be great again».