What Did Trump\'s Europe Trip Actually Do?

 Paul D. Shinkman
  19th-Jul-2018

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists purposely waits until each January to update its nuclear "Doomsday Clock" to avoid appearing reactive, or that it is influenced by the news of the day – events like President Donald Trump's recently concluded, incendiary trip to Finland, the United Kingdom and NATO.

Yet it's hard to ignore that Trump's actions already have consequences.

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"We moved it to two minutes in January in anticipation that things would get really dangerous," says Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin. "And they seem to have."

Trump's behavior over his six-day trip incensed officials abroad and at home because of his open approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his apparent confirmation that he believes the former KGB official's denying Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election more than the assessment of his own intelligence community. The Monday news conference followed trips to Britain and Brussels in which he disparaged some of America's most important international alliances and leaders.

The subsequent bluster and red-faced condemnations of Trump's actions – despite the White House's turnaround on Tuesday – may well have degraded America's long-term standing among its friends, competitors and outright foes. And it may have created an environment where new threats may emerge or old ones may accelerate at new speeds.

Experts in international risk say there are other immediate, tangible effects of the president's recent trip.

"What's different now is perception, and perceptions really matter in alliances," says Todd Sechser, a professor at the University of Virginia's Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, who specializes in deterrence and international security. "Alliances are all about creating the perception that allies will defend one another if they're attacked."

Most NATO meetings are choreographed to reinforce the message that the allies are unified, that they have shared values and that they can overcome minor disagreements. Trump ultimately signed the culminating communique asserting those values, but not before openly questioning the alliance and publicly embarrassing his counterparts.

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"That conveys an image that maybe the U.S. may not be committed to the alliance to the extent it was in the past," Sechser says. "Criticizing the alliance so publicly and so vociferously risks creating a belief in the mind of President Putin that the U.S. may hesitate before defending an ally."

Damon Wilson with the Atlantic Council says U.S. allies, particularly nations that border Russia like the Baltic countries and Poland, feel a newfound need to hedge against American support. That can be a positive outcome, particularly for a president who feels U.S. allies need to do more to protect themselves and not rely on American might. But it also limits America's ability to align its allies' outreach to U.S. interests.

"[Trump] has telegraphed to Russia that if you simply deny the invasion or the attack, we will believe you, not our own government, not our own intelligence or security agencies," Sen. Chris Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat, said on the floor of the Senate on Monday. "That's what he told us today, and that's what would likely happen if Europe was attacked. That's what Europeans heard today."

Murphy is one of a cacophony of members of Congress who felt compelled to contradict the president's assessment of Russia's trustworthiness – an awkward situation for Republicans running in districts that support Trump.

Sen. John McCain, the ailing chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee and staunch critic of Russia, called Trump's press conference with Putin "a recent low point in the history of the American presidency."

The situation was exacerbated "coming close on the heels of President Trump's bombastic and erratic conduct toward our closest friends and allies in Brussels and Britain," the Arizona Republican said in a statement.

In an analysis note, private intelligence firm The Soufan Group said Trump's actions leave America's closest allies "vulnerable to unpredictable shifts."

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"Maintaining an effective rapport and some level of trust is important for negotiating policies with countries working against U.S. national interests. However, the notion that the appropriate barometer of analysis for policy direction is friendship – as opposed to dealing with facts, including Russia's continued illegal annexation of Crimea, its invasion of eastern Ukraine, its support for the Assad regime, and its blatant and continued active measures against Western democracies and elections – is unprecedented," it wrote.

Perhaps the most tangible effect of Trump's behavior is not something he did, but something he didn't do, Bronson says. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty governing nuclear weapons proliferation is set to expire in 2021, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty remains in flux amid American evidence that Russia has violated it and Russian claims that the U.S. has done the same. Neither came up in substantive discussion, at least publicly, between Trump and Putin.

"Without the two of these, if the INF falls apart and START doesn't get renewed, we have nothing constraining our nuclear weapons for the first time since 1972," Bronson says.

Other organizations push back on the assertion that Trump has created lasting damage.

The Fund for Peace, which produces an annual Fragile States Index, has documented an increased sense of pressure facing European countries, wrought by international factors such as Russian aggression and also domestic issues, like the Brexit vote in the U.K. and the rise of far-right political nationalism in countries like Poland and Hungary.

"There are some countries in Europe demonstrating an enormous amount of resilience," says J.J. Messner, the fund's executive director, citing powers like Germany and France whose pro-EU governments have so far maintained power despite these pressures.

Others see in Trump's trip to Europe a common pattern for the former reality TV star, of behavior criticized internationally for being erratic but that largely serves to deflect what Trump perceives as personal attacks, like the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling.

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Ideology Matters in Western Europe

Putin was able to offer Trump precisely what he needed, says Reva Goujon, vice president for global analysis at Stratfor, a private geopolitical intelligence firm.

"What could he offer him that no other world leader could? This ardent political defense of the president. This kind of commiserating over the political attacks," Goujon says. "It really reinforced a lot of what Trump was craving to hear in defending his election victory and condemning these allegations and so on. Trump ate that up, evidently, and seemed very comfortable in the press conference."

Trump faces significant tests in the coming months that will show whether this trip had an actual effect, including a new trade deal with the U.K., whether the U.S. will penalize European banks that continue to do business with Iran in spite of new American sanctions, and whether U.S. policy will change toward complex war zones where Russia operates, namely Syria and Ukraine.

With these in mind, European allies and the U.S. increasingly appear "on completely separate pages," Goujon says.

"They are reaching that limit about what they're willing to tolerate."

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