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Let’s Talk About Rights

Russia, Europe, and the Trump Dilemma

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Could it be that international diplomacy is getting complicated fast, especially with Europe and Russia? Two forces seem to be afoot within the Trump camp, if not the Republican national security community. Resolution will be needed. At present, this conflict may be helpful.  If there are two such forces, different ways of conceiving the future, they may look like this.

The first – arguably in ascendance – says:  The more Europe believes aggression from Russia is possible, the more inclined those countries are to invest in their own defense. Concerns over self-preservation generate urgency. Close ties between America and Russia might incentivize European reexamination of spending. That might even help explain Trump’s statements reopening ties with Russia, pressing Europe to think more about defense. 

That approach is risky. Some might add untrue to allies. In any event, it would constitute a daring, calculated gamble, inviting backlash from Europe and possible wrong conclusions from Russia. It might, nevertheless, be a prompt. It might throw down a gauntlet, breaking some glass, waking allies out of the extended doze, spurring near-term increases in European defense outlays.

On the other hand, it might prompt seldom-asked questions, especially about NATO cohesion.  That would not be a good thing. Since World War II, despite differences – such as, over nuclear freeze, Pershing II basing, and ballistic missile defense – NATO has not been questioned. A poor outcome would be Russia jumping a border country, assuming American indifference, or happy to drive a wedge between Europe and America.

The other force is traditionalists, who may favor a rethink of European-American burden sharing.  That approach flips the question:  If America conditions continued support to Europe on greater European commitments to defense, can we rebalance?  If not, America might threaten to unwind current contributions, forcing a hard decision on old allies – because they have, after all, have forced one on us. In that context, relations with Russia could become closer, but without any implication of weakening American commitments to NATO countries. 

Now, assuming for a moment these two forces are really at odds, where should new leadership come out? Where might they come out, where leave constructive ambiguity? Answer: They need not settle every question at once. After setting some unmovable markers, such as near-term support for NATO, without long-term dollar levels; new willingness to listen to Russia, without any sharp unilateral turns; and an invitation to both sides to settle old differences, avoiding new wars in Ukraine, Georgia, or Syria, the new team might incentivize real changes. 

Russia might come in from the cold, begin realistically discussing options for peace in Ukraine and Syria, as long as they’re not frozen out on principle. European allies might see the possibility of an American pull back, taking more responsibility for their own defense. Security might settle over the historic Russia-European seamline, even Middle East. In effect, big decisions (how much dialogue with Russia, how much money to and from Europe, how to reconfigure obligations, who will borrow what from whom) can be put off. But some decisions need to be made – now.  

Two final thoughts. Whatever the Trump national security team is thinking, the core NATO commitment – all states pledged to defend each other – should not be questioned. It should be clearly restated. America’s post-WWII commitment to democracy, free peoples, and free markets, specifically across Europe and the Far East, must be inviolate, even if next stages of burden sharing are deadly serious. 

Second, America must be in the mix on all things involving Europe and Russia. Being part of conflict avoidance, if not resolution, is part of who we are. Unfortunately, America stood aside in the Obama years, did nothing in crisis after crisis, inviting more crises. American leadership was sought, but the Obama team demurred. The rough patch must end.  We need to start leading, if necessary playing a colorful diplomatic role. Done right, we will get synergy, not more recrimination and conflict.

So, as big strategic questions get wrestled inside the president-elect’s national security “think team,” opportunities do abound. Risks, too. Like the adage surrounding a wedding, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,” we need to borrow from the past and present, think about the future, then step up. No one said this would be easy. But God willing, these forces will sort themselves out. And we will end up raising a common glass to progress, advancing America’s relations with both Europe and Russia.

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