Trump and Clinton Have Shortcomings to Overcome in Transatlantic Relations

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., October 9. Jim Young/REUTERS

This article first appeared on the European Council for Foreign Relations website.

It was bad luck that President Donald Trump's first visit to Europe was to Sicily. Trump generally didn't travel overseas much. But he wanted to attend the G8 meeting there―largely because he had arranged for his good friend Russian President Vladimir Putin to rejoin the club. The only problem was that Trump's understanding of Sicily came almost entirely from his unswerving devotion to the Godfather movies.

Accordingly, his speech to the assembled leaders of the major democracies noted that, henceforth, European and Asian security would be run on a strict Mafia protection model. "Nice little country you have here", he joked to a stone-faced Italian prime minister, "shame if something happened to it". Even before the formal "offer that Europeans couldn't refuse" arrived later that summer, the effect on the United States' relations with its European allies was nothing short of catastrophic.

This is a piece of fiction, or at least a premature description of reality. But it highlights the type of challenge that the 2016 US presidential election poses for Europeans.

Trump particularly represents a new challenge. Transatlantic relations have long been predictable, even boring. Even their dysfunctions and disputes are ritualised and repetitive ― something that makes life difficult for analysts and journalists looking for new or exciting material. But it has served the interests of the transatlantic partners fairly well. In geopolitics, repetitive, boring disputes at summit meetings are in fact an amazing and historically rare achievement.

For all of the complaints on both sides of the Atlantic, the alliance has functioned quite effectively in recent years. From a US perspective, European allies, individually, and through multilateral forums such as NATO and the EU, have remained the partners of first choice. European allies are America's key partners in every major foreign policy endeavour, particularly in military operations. For Europe, the alliance has served to keep Americans interested and involved in European issues, even as the Middle East continues to burn and Asia grows in geopolitical weight and danger.

For these reasons, the alliance remains important to policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic. But now, for the first time in generations, the very concept of "alliance" is being called into question by a US presidential candidate. The Republican nominee, Donald Trump, has been clear that he views the alliance in instrumentalist terms. Unless the alliance is radically reshaped, Trump claims that America will simply walk away from Europe, leaving it to deal with its problems on its own.

The Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, presents a much more familiar challenge to the alliance, but her approach to Russia, as well as the growing American demand for Europeans to take greater responsibility for their own security, means European leaders will still have to take some very difficult decisions.

What would a Trump or Clinton presidency mean for Europe, and how should Europeans respond to the potential ― and in one case existential ― challenges that these candidates will present?

Trump's core worldview presents a serious challenge to the transatlantic alliance. Of course, a desire for more equitable burden-sharing has been present in American foreign policy for decades. President Obama's pivot to Asia reflected the notion that Europe was not capable of dealing with its own problems and that the excessive American military presence in Europe had led Europeans to neglect their own forces.

But comparing Obama and Trump shows what is new about the Republican nominee. Previous US efforts to equalise the security burden, including Obama's, have always been based on the notion that America's best partners are democracies, that its own prosperity is derived from a broad global system of trade and investment, and that Europe's security must be protected—by Europe if possible, and by the United States if necessary. Previous post-war American presidents have explicitly looked for a more equitable partnership with Europe, but they believed that Europe's security and prosperity were a core interest of the United States and have therefore been wary of abandoning Europe and leaving it to its own devices.

This bargaining approach, in which America's commitment to Europe is never questioned, has weakened US leverage. Implicit in the current approach is the assumption that the United States will take up whatever slack Europe leaves behind. And so Europeans end up free-riding on American security guarantees. However, the current model also reflects a historically sound belief that the United States does have a stake in European conflicts, and cannot ultimately stand aside from them.

Trump, in contrast, believes in walls and in oceans. In his view, America can and should stand aside from problems in other regions. For example, Trump doesn't believe that the US should offer assistance on the European refugee crisis, because "we have our own problems." Unlike any US president since Harry S. Truman, Trump doesn't believe that America has special relationships with countries because they are democracies. After all, he sees democratic nations as inherently weak. Instead of being lambasted by weak democratic allies, he believes he can formulate individual deals with authoritarian leaders that can better support American economic and security interests.

Because Trump could walk away from existing allies, this type of thinking considerably strengthens his bargaining power with Europe and other allies. But in the process it might destroy the transatlantic partnership that has made both sides of the Atlantic so secure and prosperous.

As president, Hillary Clinton might lack some of Trump's leverage, but she would still be seeking to get Europeans to contribute as much as possible to their own security and to US efforts at promoting stability elsewhere.

From a European perspective, this makes Clinton a far more "normal" and comprehensible presidential candidate—and not just compared to Trump. She has been a presence in national politics for more than 25 years and has a long history in politics―as first lady, senator, and secretary of state. Her foreign policy views place her firmly at the center of the American foreign policy spectrum and firmly within the long-held consensus on the transatlantic alliance.

Indeed, Clinton is perhaps more normal than is appropriate given the national mood. The extensive support for Trump and also for Senator Bernie Sanders, in the Democratic primary, indicates that much of the electorate is disillusioned with establishment figures. There is a sense among voters that both the Bush and Obama foreign policies got the United States too involved in the world and failed to put America first.

Be that as it may, it is surpassingly simple to describe Clinton's basic approach to the transatlantic alliance. Like every president since 1945, she will rely on the alliance as a cornerstone of her foreign policy. And like every president for nearly that long, she will, within the confines of that approach, seek to shift some of the burdens for global and particularly regional European security to the larger powers of Europe. Like Obama, she will seek to reallocate some of the resources spent on European security to areas of greater urgency, particularly East Asia.

This core approach is too familiar to merit a very detailed explanation. Instead, the paper will focus on three less commonly discussed, but no less important, aspects of her approach to foreign policy and transatlantic relations that will have an impact on Europe. The first is the essential continuity in foreign policy that would result from a Clinton presidency, including on the use of military force. The second is the role of gender in her approach to foreign policy. And the third is her approach to Russia, which stands out as an exception to the basic rule of foreign policy continuity between her and Obama.

Perhaps the least understood aspect of Clinton's foreign policy is her approach to Russia. Critics frequently cite the 2009 reset as evidence that Clinton is soft on Russia. But in fact, Clinton's experience as secretary of state deeply soured her view of the Russian regime. By 2011, she had accused the Russian regime of rigging the elections to the Russian parliament, and a year later harshly rebuked Putin for resuming the Russian presidency in 2012.

In the case of Syria, she was incensed at the assistance Russia provided to the Assad regime. In one speech in June 2012, she revealed that Russians were shipping attack helicopters to Syria and called out Russian claims that they were not being used in the civil war there as "patently untrue". She has since compared the Russian annexation of Crimea to Adolf Hitler's invasions of then Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1930s, a statement perfectly pitched to anger a Russian leadership that sees the defeat of Nazism as Russia's defining struggle.

Ironically, one reason for Clinton's distrust of Russia is that the country's decision-makers also have a gendered perspective on foreign policy. But that perspective is nearly the polar opposite of Clinton's. The Russians maintain that women have no place in such discussions, and there are very few women in the upper echelons of the Russian foreign and security policy apparatus. Russia's policy stance, as presented by its often-shirtless president, seems the epitome of a macho foreign policy.

As secretary of state, Clinton had a very bad relationship with her Russian counterparts. The delegations of men they brought to meetings with her and her team often seemed more intent on humiliating or flustering her than on achieving any particular policy outcome. According to Politico, Russian officials referred to her with both derision and respect as a "lady with balls." After Clinton criticised the December 2011 elections, Putin personally accused her of fomenting protests against his rule and remains angry with her to this day over those events.

Even if Putin's anger against Clinton is motivated by more than just gender, treating female counterparts with disdain is clearly part of Russia's diplomatic playbook. People who worked with Condoleezza Rice when she was secretary of state suggest that she received similar treatment, despite being a Russia specialist and speaking Russian. And Putin's ill treatment of Angela Merkel, including trying to play on her fear of dogs, is well-known. Yet Clinton's successor at the State Department, John Kerry, does not seem to have had these types of problems with the Russians, and has even bonded with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, over late-night dinners.

After Russia's apparent effort to use underhand tactics, including hacking the Democratic National Committee, to support Trump in the presidential election, Putin and Clinton now apparently see each other as personal enemies that have actively tried to sabotage each other's rule.

All of this means that under Clinton the US–Russia relationship is unlikely to improve. While many in Europe, and particularly in eastern parts of the European Union, may welcome a more confrontational Russia policy from the U.S., this is not necessarily good news for transatlantic relations.

The essence of the Obama administration's approach to Russia since the invasion of Ukraine has been to maintain close alignment with the German position. Together, the Americans and the Germans have been at the center of this debate and able to maintain unity among a diverse set of opinions within Europe about what the right approach to Russia should be. If the Germans and the Americans fail to reach future agreements on Russia and that center ceases to hold, transatlantic unity will break down and the Western approach to Russia will devolve into confusion.

Jeremy Shapiro is Research Director at ECFR.

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