Trump, Putin and NATO: the rise of the strategic doughnut
18 Jul 2018|

It’s odd to find that it wasn’t a shock to hear Donald Trump speak glowingly of Russian President Vladimir Putin, to hear Trump disown his own intelligence agencies’ work to reveal in detail Russian military intelligence interference in the 2016 presidential election, or to hear Trump name the EU as the first US foe to come to his mind (Russia is also a foe, but only ‘in certain respects’).

The power of Trump to dislocate and disrupt by his words is rapidly moderating, as it becomes apparent that he is gloriously disconnected from advice and information and that he has few plans that follow through on his various public performances.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton may have started their jobs thinking they were going to advise the president, but by now they must be realising that their main function is to present the latest Trump words as somehow part of an overall logic, even when it conflicts with myriad statements of their own views on the same issues.

We are seeing governments, analysts and leaders all being much more open about the downsides of this US president’s words and actions, in a way that’s new for long-term positive partners of the US who are used to changes in direction that come with new administrations. Even those who are very obvious fans of US power in the world and want to see the best in Trump’s latest utterance are having a hard time finding silver linings. They seem now to be saying things like Greg Sheridan in the Australian: Trump’s doing a lot of good, but he’s also doing a lot of bad, so it’s hard to see the balance.

The problem of Trump, however, is in his negative power—the power to tear down or to prevent, rather than the power to create and reinforce. Examples are his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership without an alternative, his withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement without an alternative, and his denigration of NATO as a security partnership.

His withdrawal from the JCPOA negotiated by the US, European nations, China and Russia to prevent Iran becoming a nuclear power is a particularly illuminating example. After the withdrawal, Pompeo released a threadbare new ‘strategy’ that the international community was meant to sign up to, but without any real expectation that that would happen—and it hasn’t. It appears to have evaporated as fast as it was put together.

The negative power of Trump and his willingness to use it is big and bad news in the lands of international security, strategy and economics, because US leadership on international security, strategy and economics has been key to the last six decades of global prosperity and security. As the Pew Research Center has found, it is empowering US adversaries and reducing US power in the world.

The Trump–Putin meeting and its early aftermath show this negative power at its most raw. The net effect of this performance is that Putin can present his people with the fact that Russia isn’t being held to account by the US president for shooting down the MH17 civil airliner or for the illegal use of a Novichok chemical weapon on UK soil that has seemingly killed a UK citizen. Worse than that, for his own confused personal and nakedly political reasons, Trump has told the world that he believes Putin’s bare faced-lies about Russia not interfering in the US elections.

What a gift to Putin’s authoritarian rule and use of Russian cyber, military and intelligence power in the world this US president is. Putin should feel less constrained than the day before the summit in using Russian power in the world, including where it breaks international laws and interferes in other states’ domestic functioning and debates. He can also feel pleased that furthering his attempts at unilateral redefinitions of Russian territorial boundaries in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Georgia are likely to provoke no opposition from Trump. If Putin is at all disconcerted, it will be because this all seems too easy. He likes to work for his victories.

Kim Jong-un can feel similarly pleased that the rosy glow of a day summit with Trump leaves him free to be a nuclear state, as long as he doesn’t embarrass Trump too much and so attract a further bout of celebrity attention. Trump has so many summits with great leaders, so little time and so few officials creating supporting implementation plans. Knowing this, Putin and Kim understand that catering to his attention deficit disorder is a workable approach.

The strategic takeaways for US partners are that we can’t wait for a positive agenda to emerge under this administration and we can expect further summit shocks and intemperate tweets that create heat, light and noise. Instead of watching and waiting, we are best having our own plans and agendas and cooperating with each other and US institutions, despite Trump.

‘Despite Trump’ is a strange organising principle for the US and its allies, but it’s the same conclusion that powerful US individuals who matter on national security are advocating—such as Senator John McCain, who has described Trump’s Putin summitry as ‘one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory’. Other senior Republicans like Bob Corker and Mitch McConnell, who up until now have supported Trump where possible, have been driven to criticise him. Several have stated their support for the US intelligence community over the US president. Even more significant is the serving director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, repeating the US intelligence community’s advice after Trump’s dismissal of that advice following his chat with Putin.

So, the previous approach of US allies and partners of working to a hub-and-spoke model where the US administration was in the centre will shift, as it already is, to a doughnut approach, where the hub is connected and the US is in the centre but not in a leadership role. The Japan–EU trade negotiations are an indicator that this is starting to happen. The Macron–Turnbull agenda that flowed from the French president’s visit to Australia is another example. Almost all US allies and partners are coming to this recognition at the same time and being more activist and imaginative as a result. If US alliances are to be strengthened, it will be because of the actions of individual allies that lead the agenda with US institutions.

The NATO defence spend increase is most likely to be used to develop the doughnut agenda by deepening relationships in ‘non-US NATO’ and with NATO partners like Australia—a happy but entirely unintended consequence from Trump. That’s the good news, so let’s see the ideas and the agendas. Let the doughnut roll. As a statesman in a far darker time purportedly said, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’