Where is the Trump administration headed in its policies toward Russia and Europe? Several markers have been laid down in recent months.
First, the president delivered a forceful defense of the Western idea in Warsaw last summer, while affirming America’s commitment to NATO under Article 5. Liberals informed us that a verbal defense of Western civilization is now socially unacceptable, but most conservatives liked it.
Second, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered a welcome address on strengthening Western alliances, at the Wilson Center in November, followed by repeat visits to Europe.
Third, the administration began staffing up with some capable Europe experts as political appointees. The former head of the Center for European Policy Analysis, Wess Mitchell, arrived as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs in October. Mitchell co-authored a recent book, The Unquiet Frontier — a favorite of H. R. McMaster’s — arguing that American alliances around the perimeters of Russia, China, and Iran should be bolstered. Mitchell’s co-author, Jakub Grygiel, manages European matters at the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning, with planning director Brian Hook.
The administration’s Europe policy, as it has emerged, appears to have several key components:
‐A reaffirmation of NATO as the heart of the West’s defense
‐Asking European allies to shoulder more of the burden for their own military protection
‐Working with smaller Central European NATO allies, rather than against them
‐Maintaining and expanding a U.S. strategic presence in Poland and the Baltics
‐Encouraging alternative energy supplies to European allies, in order to wean them off excessive dependence on Russian natural gas
‐To that end, opposition toward the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project connecting Russia and Germany
‐Negotiations over Ukraine to enforce the 2014 Minsk agreement
‐Boosting military aid to Ukraine, through the sale of U.S. weapons, allowing its government to better fight off Russian-backed separatists
‐Taking the position that EU relations with member European states is a matter for those states to resolve, without American interference
‐Increased U.S. military spending, in part to make more credible America’s strategic position overseas, not least with regard to Russia
‐Urging European allies to reconsider and help renegotiate the deeply flawed 2015 Iran nuclear deal
‐An unapologetic defense of the idea of the West as a civilizational legacy worth defending
The Trump administration’s position, in practice, is not against the European Union as such. Rather, the position is simply that free member states can decide through their own democratic processes how to relate to the EU — or whether they want to be members at all — and that this is no business of U.S. policy. Liberals on both sides of the Atlantic currently worry that even democratic expressions of national self-determination portend a resurgence of 1930s-style fascism. Yet the British, just to take one leading case, are not known for their fascist authoritarianism. British voters decided to exit the EU. They have every right to do so, without being lectured on the matter one way or another by U.S. presidents.
Standing by American values may require speaking out on human-rights issues, even in relation to U.S. allies. This is certainly the case with regard to Poland’s proposed law criminalizing specific ways of discussing the Holocaust.
From time to time, standing by American values does require speaking out on human-rights issues, even in relation to U.S. allies. This is certainly the case with regard to Poland’s proposed law criminalizing specific ways of discussing the Holocaust. The U.S. State Department has spoken out against this strange proposed law, as well it should.
At other times in the past, a human-rights agenda has been pressed or misinterpreted to the point that it damages broader U.S. interests. During the presidency of Barack Obama, the U.S. State Department took an increasingly assertive position promoting liberal policy preferences, such as same-sex marriage, as American foreign-policy priorities worldwide, even in Central Europe. The public position of multiple Obama officials was simply that there was no tradeoff between emphasizing these social issues and working with allies in culturally conservative countries like Poland on other matters of interest such as counterterrorism. As even a number of thoughtful Democratic-party foreign-policy experts admit privately, however, this public position was unserious, since the practical tradeoffs were very real.
What about the specter of neo-fascism? On the European continent, the small minority of Hitler-lovers are a little more numerous than in the U.S., represented by some extremely creepy groups such as Golden Dawn of Greece, along with numerous radical Islamists. Most populist parties of political relevance in Europe, however, are neither fascist nor neo-fascist. Poland’s Law and Justice party, for example, as well as Hungary’s Fidesz, are culturally conservative, Euro-skeptical, and populist, working within a democratic framework of multiparty competition. They look to remain within NATO, and indeed within the EU, but resent what they view as excess meddling from Brussels. Having seen their countries liberated from Soviet Communism within the last 30 years, they’re in no mood to cede their national sovereignty to either Russia or the EU. As even the watchdog organization Freedom House concedes, Hungary and Poland are free countries.
Hungary’s Viktor Orban, in particular — the EU’s longtime provocateur — maintains businesslike relations with Russia, in part because Budapest remains dependent on Moscow for natural gas. Most Hungarians support NATO, neither like nor fear Russia, and view their own country as Western while simultaneously a bridge to the East. Which, geographically, it is. Orban’s “illiberal democracy” speech a few years ago troubled many of Hungary’s allies, and understandably so. It is still not entirely clear what he meant by it. One possibility is a functional democracy that is neither post-Christian nor post-national.
A well-informed understanding of a democratically expressed conservative nationalism would grasp that there are multiple examples of it in European history having nothing to do with fascism. Charles De Gaulle, for example, was in many ways a fiercely conservative nationalist, committed to the sovereignty, greatness, and independence of his native France. Diplomatically he was an Euro-skeptic and liked to keep his options open, with Moscow as well as other powers. He introduced dramatic constitutional changes to form the Fifth Republic, and his personal style was regularly described as autocratic. For U.S. officials, he could be immensely frustrating. But at the end of the day, as more-astute Americans came to understand, De Gaulle was rock solid, and a democrat deeply rooted within the best traditions of the Western world. When the time came to combat actual fascists, he fought them with everything he had, and never stopped fighting.
If what we are seeing in parts of Western and Central Europe today is a Gaullist trend, then this may be badly misunderstood or even feared by orthodox liberal elite opinion, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing in the world. At a minimum, outside analysts need to develop the conceptual tools to grasp what’s happening, without going straight for the lazy fascist analogies.
As George Kennan argued years ago, experience suggests that the best way to handle Russia is to create facts on the ground — and then let Moscow draw its own conclusions. The Russians won’t like it, but they’ll get the message.
What about U.S. policy toward Moscow? In practice, the current administration has been more hardline against Russian assertions on the ground than was Obama. However, the tone has been less stern than many would like on human rights. As George Kennan argued years ago, experience suggests that the best way to handle Russia is to create facts on the ground — and then let Moscow draw its own conclusions. The Russians won’t like it, but they’ll get the message. U.S. relations with Moscow really were dangerously tense by late 2016. Obama’s special combination of ethical scolding and half-hearted threats of force was almost custom-made to drive Russians up the wall without necessarily deterring them in all cases. Still, there’s a right way to negotiate with the Russians, and a wrong way. Push back, impose costs, and create counter-pressure. Don’t focus primarily on scolding them. The Russian people really are a great nation, deserving of respect. But that respect will neither be given, nor earned, by any undue concessions to the Putin regime. Obama already tried that. It didn’t work. When Putin’s anxieties bump up against the democratic self-determination of Russia’s neighbors — including Ukraine — then for the United States, democracy can and should take precedence.
Putin denies having tried to meddle in the last U.S. presidential election. In all probability, he’s lying. It is absolutely insufferable that any foreign autocrat, including Putin, would dare attempt to interfere in this country’s democratic processes. But Putin may have got more than he bargained for. His attempted machinations have triggered a political reaction in this country, however discombobulated and excessive at times, that makes it practically impossible for Trump to reach out to Moscow diplomatically, even on those occasions when it might make sense. As so often before in other cases, Putin’s aggressive tactical coups produce strategic backfires that hurt and isolate Russia.
American conservatives need to recognize the seriousness of attempted Russian cyberattacks on the United States. In fact, many conservatives do. But liberals must recognize a few stubborn facts as well. There is simply no hard evidence that Russia succeeded in altering a single U.S. vote in the 2016 presidential election, through either electronic hacking or political persuasion online. If Vladimir Putin convinced 50,000 Pennsylvanians to vote for Trump instead of Clinton, then please introduce them to the rest of us. People voted for their own reasons. When Democrats claim that the 2016 result is or might be illegitimate — as Clinton herself did, amazingly, last November — this actually serves Putin’s broader purposes. It badly undermines popular faith in the result of a valid, democratic U.S. election and sets Americans against one another with even greater intensity. In the January 2017 assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, that’s a good part of what Putin wants.
There’s also one other thing that serves Putin’s purposes, and that’s when voices on the left in Europe and America routinely describe their conservative democratic opponents as fascist or fascistic. It’s actually a very Putin-esque move, guaranteed to whip up outrage and blind reasonable discussion. Progressives might want to knock that off. There are indeed powerful and genuinely authoritarian challenges in the world today, requiring a vigilant response. But they come from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, radical Islamists, and jihadist terrorists such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. The United States for its part remains a rambunctiously free republic, in case you hadn’t noticed, and the world’s most powerful democracy.
If congressional Democrats are as serious as they say they are about countering Russian aggressions, including those against Europe, then there are some practical measures they can support, and conservative Republicans should support them too. They can support proposed increases in national defense spending, including U.S. nuclear modernization, to strengthen the strategic credibility of America’s position in Europe. They can support continuing increased U.S. natural-gas production through hydraulic fracking and other means, allowing for a boost in U.S. gas exports across the Atlantic to help wean NATO allies off Russian natural gas. They can join in opposing Germany’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, for the very same reason. They can support strengthened U.S. cyber-defenses, including American-election infrastructure security. They can support working with rather than against key NATO allies such as Poland and Hungary, precisely in order to counter Russian influence in that part of the world.
And if congressional liberal Democrats cannot support the above practical national-security measures to counter Russian influence in the West but only discuss the issue at endless fever pitch when it aligns with advantages to their party, then we may well begin to wonder whether all the current agitation was really about Russia in the first place.