Photo: Brendan Smialowski /AFP/Getty Images
Below is a conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman, conducted via email over the last few days, on Donald Trump's trip to Brussels for NATO meetings.
Brad Nelson: So, what’s your take on Trump’s visit to NATO? As you know, here in the States, Trump’s visit has gone over very badly.
Yohanes Sulaiman: What else is new? Trump said stupid things. And now everyone is outraged, saying it is the end of the world that we know it: Trump is doing the bidding of Putin, his master, etc. But in reality, he behaved more or less okay, declared victory, and moved on to London. And nothing really changes except that people remain pissed at Trump. At this point, I am not even sure who I dislike more, Trump, with his earth-scorching tactics, or his over the top critics. It’s kind of sad, actually, because I am really worried about Trump, but his critics' reactions actually makes him look normal.
What we see here is, I think, is how things work under Trump. Trump takes an extreme right position, everyone goes nuts. Then, when Trump actually makes decision, he tracks back a bit, and his a bit-crazy decision actually becomes the new normal, simply because his critics overreact.
BN: Look, he trashed Germany. His threats for the US to go "its own way" if NATO members don't pony up more for their own defenses is a new wrinkle, for sure. The visual of Trump berating NATO General Secretary Stoltenberg was striking, perhaps downright illustrative of his desire to trash the key elements of the western liberal order. Russia is certainly happy. Russian commentators have publicly remarked that Trump's doing to NATO what the Ruskies couldn't for the last 75 years. All of this has greatly unnerved lots of folks, in Europe and here in the States, mostly the internationalist-establishment types.
And I get it. NATO has provided lots of benefits to the US, it links like-minded nations, and is still a valuable presence in Europe. Ultimately, what it comes down to is how one sees Trump. That completely colors how we interpret his NATO trip. If we see a colluding, erratic, radical president, then his statements and actions in Brussels are ominous and dangerous. On the other hand, if he's an all bark, no bite leader, then his NATO adventure was far more benign. Maybe it's just one big photo op for political base, which shares his antipathy toward international bureaucrats and institutions.
BN: So, in your view, what's motivating Trump? Why is he taking the scorched-earth approach to NATO?
YS: I basically agree with all you noted—Trump behaved boorishly and unnerved a lot of people. I think we really need to understand what motivates him behind the scene, and I have several suggestions:
1. It’s red meat for his base. He believed that he was elected to upend the status quo, to deal with those cheating Europeans and Chinese and whoever else out there. And by golly, he is going to do it in a big way. That explains a lot, but does not really explain all of what’s happening.
2. The more I am thinking about my "extreme is the new normal" argument, the more I think that is the method behind this entire madness. Trump, I think, realizes and takes advantage of the fact that everyone is basically pro-status quo and relying on the United States to maintain the status quo. Thus, what I think he has been doing -- is to take an extreme position, so extreme, that everyone in the end concede something or do something drastically in order to right the ship -- because nobody likes being in a Titanic. It is an arsonist argument, but, I think, that’s the only thing that really explains this entire roller-coaster ride. See this article.
3. I think the entire US establishment (and the media) got suckered badly by painting Trump as the coming barbarian at the gate that is doing far worse than he has been doing. Think about it. The more the media and the entire establishment sound the alarm, the more people will get panicked and will concede something to him, as long as they think they are saving the ship from this crazy guy–even if what Trump has been doing is actually just yelling "fire," not doing something concrete that harms US national security, its national interests, or the liberal order more generally. Yes, yelling fire in a crowded and dark theater can cost people their lives, and considering America’s size and importance, whatever Trump does will have impacts. At the same time, we need to look behind the smoke and the mirror and see what Trump has actually done to upend the EU and NATO—beyond just big talk.
BN: You make good points, though your response covers both motives (base politics) and tactics (taking extreme positions). Catering to his base is probably highly relevant here. We know already that Trump thinks his primary mission as president is to satisfy his base. And his base isn't a fan of international institutions, unelected international bureaucrats, "free riding" Europe, and the like. Your point on tactics is echoed by Trump biographers, who have said that's exactly how he's operated over the years as a businessman. And I can see traces of that in his policies on immigration, trade, North Korea.
To all of this I would add that the positions Trump has staked out on NATO are probably in line with his beliefs and policy preferences. It's not just cynical politics. After all, for decades, he's railed against foreign nations and entities ripping off the US and the lack of good leaders in Washington who can do something about it.
As we've already discussed, Trump's visit to Brussels caused some turmoil. It prevented much from being discussed and debated; the two day meetings turned into The Trump Show. It caused confusion and worries about organizational cohesion. It undermined US credibility. It played right into the hands of Vladimir Putin, which, I'm sure, has rung alarm bells in the Baltic nations, Poland, etc. And of course, China's on the outside observing US behavior and assessing what it means for Asia. Spoiler Alert: good things, likely. The critics of Trump's NATO visit act as if all of the above make for a new, permanent status quo. I think that's a major issue here. They think Trump is ushering in an irrevocable future, one that's dark and dangerous.
I'm willing to agree that Trump's European policies run counter to US national interests and cause unnecessary chaos—in Washington (already, the Pentagon has been busy calling NATO members, reassuring them that the US isn't abandoning any commitments just yet) and Europe. But I'm not so sure they are extraordinarily damaging in the short-term, nor am I so sure that they're particularly enduring.
Just look at the transition from the Bush to Obama years. Within two years, Obama had unwound quite a bit of the damage of the Bush years to US foreign policy vis-a-vis Europe. European leaders loved Obama. European citizens loved Obama. Trust was back, confidence in the US was high once again. I suspect we'll see something similar post-Trump, unless another Trump-like figure follows The Donald in office. If the US elects a fairly conventional president in either 2020 or 2024, Europe will gravitate back to the US. European states have strong national interests to do so. Plus, there are social, cultural, and historical factors that matter and are of more enduring value than Trump. Depending on how much Trump aggravates Europe over the next few years, the next US president might have to invest considerable time in repairing US-Europe ties. But Europe will come around.
YS: I agree with your assessment, which in essence argues that the current international system, more or less, is pro-status quo, meaning that very few states would try advantage of these Trump-made upheavals, especially since there is simply no other acceptable alternative to the US at this point, at least to the European states.
I wonder though, if this, to some degree, confirms part of realists' argument about (international) system effects: that it is rare for individuals to cause damage to the international system. And I think we could argue that the only times individuals could wreak havoc so badly on international system is when the system is more or less multipolar, where power distribution is relatively equal. The question is how far individuals like Trump can really push the constraints until people, groups, and states simply give up and give in. In this case, I think, the US will get a much bigger leeway due to its size and the status-quo bias among the leadership of EU. (Plus, it’s expensive to change the system, as noted by Robert Gilpin in War and Change in World Politics). It looks to me that Trump is all bark and no bite, in regards to the EU, though not to China.