Top US expert: US actions speak louder than Trump

  • By defencematters

Derek Chollet states that US President Donald Trump’s desire to form closer cooperation between the US and Russia has no real basis.

Russia has to a certain extent been able to make people begin to doubt the power of the Transatlantic alliance and the consistency of US policy and Trump, but people must also make conclusions from what the actual action Washington is taking is,  Derek Chollet told LETA and Defence Matters. Chollet added that US President Donald Trump’s desire to form closer cooperation between the US and Russia has no real basis, as it is difficult to find the areas where Russia would be able to assist the US in solving or achieving something. Furthermore, the US system of governance is prepared to block any of Trump’s adventurism ideas, and has also so far been successful in enduring the new US president’s testing of the Constitutional system.

By Guntars Grinums

You were very close to action with the last US presidential administration, which was forced to adapt to a new security situation. Is president Trump’s administration basically following in these steps or has it considerably changed the approaches?

One level of the new administration which has changed quite a bit is that the president has talked about his desire to get along with the Russians, and he has not been very critical on Russia. He still is unwilling to acknowledge the very damaging role Russia played when it intervened in the US election. That certainly is a rhetorical shift, but underneath that I still see a lot of continuity. Of course, the US commitment to the enhanced forward presence remains and the Pentagon is continuing to support that mission in its defense budget. There is significant funding to maintain this presence and every signal that I see from our military, from our Pentagon leadership, is to stay on course. That is very good news and it has a lot of support in the United States among the Republicans, Democrats and the Congress, as well as in the government for a very robust American military presence in this region. Deep skepticism about Russia remains. Unfortunately, the president is out of step with Washington’s majority consensus on Russia.

If the president is out of step with the establishment, can he change it during his four years of office?

There are certainly constraints on any president’s power but he still is quite powerful. Related to Russia, we have seen in the course of the Trump presidency that US Congress has imposed very significant sanctions on Russia, sanctions which the administration tried to get Congress not to do. There was also a question for a while whether the president would sign that legislation into a law, but there was such overwhelming support for it in the Congress meaning the Congress would have overridden his veto. I think that when it comes to our budget, to our military presence, I expect a lot of continuity. But certainly this president is trying to have a better relationship with Putin. I think it is clear that in a strange way he admires Putin. He has a lot of putinist tendencies in terms of his leadership style, but this will be a test for our system and so far I can say that our system has stepped up to that test, whether it is a Congress, whether it is our press, or whether it is the strategic community of Washington. However, this matter will likely take unpredictable twists and turns if we think about next three years.

We often hear that NATO can and should do more in the Baltics and Poland. What exactly should it do?

That is a big question. Certainly, that could start with a greater number of personnel and prepositioning more equipment here. I know that the United States has carefully looked at what it has in theater here. There is also the question whether there could be permanent bases – from the US perspective I doubt it, although I don’t think it matters much as I think our persistent presence here will stay for a very, very long time. But the idea of making it permanent will be difficult – this having nothing to do with Russia or with the importance of US commitments to the Baltics – while it has everything to do with the size of the defense budget and the necessity to close some bases in the United States. It would be hard politically to open bases, as permanent bases receive all its coin from the closing bases in the US.

Is the security of Baltic states getting enough attention in the US or is it not significant enough?

Among the experts and the people who focus on Transatlantic security issues, the Baltics are getting a lot of attention. Unfortunately, inside this administration, and also because all the drama around the administration and all the turmoil around the world, generally, this corner of the world gets less attention than perhaps it deserves. It is only because of the Zapad exercise there was more focus on what is going on in the Baltics. But the reality is that the United States, UK and probably Germany will be more inward looking in the coming years because of politics, because of internal turmoil. It will be harder for leaders to give the time and attention that the challenges here deserve. That said, we have many, many experts and I think there are members of the press, and obviously in Congress, that are very focused on these issues.

Could some escalation of the North Korea crisis take this attention away from our region?

Yes. This is part of that turmoil in the world I mentioned, and right now there is an escalating war of words between United States and North Korea, with a lot of concern that it could lead to an actual war. There are also big questions for the Trump administration about what they are going to do about Iran, about the nuclear deal. If they pull out of that nuclear deal then you would see the breakdown of a diplomatic consensus which came together to put Iran’s nuclear ambitions in a box. So, there is no shortage of crisis to distract attention.

To solve the North Korean crisis the world needs serious involvement from China and also Russia, which does not seem to be interested in any progress there. Can we rely on their involvement?

There is no question that China is the key player in the North Korea crisis and the solution of the crisis would have to go through Beijing. And that is of course what administrations have been trying to do - to raise pressure on China, so that it in turn raises pressure on North Korea. Because of its relationship with North Korea, Russia is a player, but not a very decisive one. If you think about the countries which are part of the six party talks – the US, North Korea, Russia, Japan, China and South Korea – Russia is the least active of those six. There is not any real trade-off to make, so we can only get their cooperation in the way we need when the administration would be tempted to trade certain things away.

Has the United States developed any tools to seriously counter Russian attacks on Western values via the information war it is waging?

The first priority which is happening in the United States is greater awareness of the threat. The organization I work with, The German Marshall Fund, just this year launched something called the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which is the effort to track, monitor and publicize the Russian backed actors on Twitter, social media bots – automated systems that are helping to sow dissent and uncertainty within our political system and our public debates. That has got a lot of attention in the United States and is just the act of exposing what Russia is doing, making people more aware that these things are happening. We are showing that there are links between certain debates in United States and Russia’s effort to fuel those debates, whether it is race relations or as just recently when we had a very public policy debate about American football - whether players should stand for the national anthem. Russia was very active in those debates. It is not new for this part of the world, this is something Russia has been doing here for quite some time.

There is no question that we together need to build a greater resilience in the United States and in Europe in terms of how to handle these threats. Media companies, new technology companies, companies like Google, Facebook or Twitter, are getting a lot of scrutiny in the United States for the way these platforms are being used by Russia and what they can do about stopping it. What the NATO alliance is doing on cyber warfare is very important. But no one believes, or is satisfied, that we are protected enough.

The West is being challenged by the Russian regime not its people. Is the West still capable of influencing the Russian people to turn their influence towards this regime?

We have seen indications over the last years of discontent inside Russia, dissatisfaction with the Putin regime. We see more and more popular protests, but it is very hard to see how things could change dramatically as long as Putin is in power. From the US perspective, we want to support the promotion of liberal values in Russia, but that is one area which it is much harder now with the new president who shares many of Putin’s values, at least when it comes to a highly organized society and how you treat some certain ethnic groups. So the US has kind of backed off from promoting democracy or has downgraded it. But I have not lost hope, the Russian people are very dynamic, proud, talented, but unfortunately they have to live in a very autocratic regime.

Is the situation in Ukraine getting nearer to any positive solution?

I think that the trend seems to be going in the right direction. Ukraine has grown significantly closer to the EU and NATO and with the United States bilaterally than it had ever been before. Ukraine still has tremendous challenges - whether it is the occupied territories, Russia’s efforts to undermine it, or corruption inside Ukraine which is getting increasing attention. I remain relatively optimistic about the direction of Ukraine and I feel good about the relations that the US has developed with Ukraine since 2014. I still think there is hope.

Is the NATO decision and implementation process fast enough, keeping in mind how fast Russia can adapt to new situations?

I think it is still too slow. NATO has shown that it is able to make quick decisions. For example, in 2014, after the illegal annexation of Crimea and when Russia intervened into Ukraine, NATO made some decisions fairly quickly to augment the Baltic air policing, and begin the flow of forces into this part of the world. But if you are comparing it to Russia’s ability to mobilize and put forces on the ground, it is still too slow. NATO is still a consensus based organization. You need all allies to agree for NATO to take an action. When I was serving in the government, we were focused on talking with allies on how to expedite this process and I know that is something that the secretary general has been committed to. There have been improvements, but I think that although there is evidence, as in the Ukraine case, that NATO can act swiftly, it is not as good as anyone would want it to be.

Is Russian involvement in the internal politics of NATO members capable of slowing down the alliance even more?

This is the negative side of the ledger of the current US and Russian relationship because Putin’s goals are clearly to have a Transatlantic relationship that is strained, have people questioning the value of NATO, have allies questioning US commitment to NATO. That is clearly something Putin sees and unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the US administration has given him a lot of wins in that category without him having to do very much. However, I think the president has ended up at the right place on the Article 5, saying the right things on the Transatlantic relationship - but I still think there are a lot of doubts if some of these bells cannot to be un-rung. Unfortunately, due to some of these missed opportunities, it is going to take a while for this administration to get its credibility back. That said, it is good that the United States is maintaining its presence here and I think people should focus on what the US is doing. But I think that Russia is succeeding in trying to have people doubt the strength of the Transatlantic alliance. I don’t think that is correct. I think that the Transatlantic alliance is very strong, but unfortunately there are more doubts today, as I see here in Riga, than it was a year ago when I was here the last time.

Could it even bring some real benefits if the US and Russian presidents succeed in establishing a friendly dialogue?

It could, although… I think the relationship between Trump and Putin so far is warmer than Putin’s relationship with any US president going back to the early George W. Bush administration, when there was a brief period of hope. But we haven’t seen things which would indicate that Trump will try very hard to have a good relationship. For example, he has not invited Putin to Washington or anything like that.

Another matter which I see as a constraint in these relations is the direction or areas of the US-Russian partnership where Russia could really help the United States. It is easy to see how Russia could help by not doing certain things. But Russia is not a decisive factor in helping us solve a lot of problems. We don’t want Russia to be destabilizing Europe, we would like Russia not to be so friendly with Iran, and we do not want Russia doing what it is doing in Syria. But the idea that there is huge potential for counterterrorism cooperation…I just don’t see it.

If you think back on the Obama administration and the core achievements of that period, there were concrete policy objectives that were met – whether it was nuclear security, the resupply line in Afghanistan or sanctions on Iran. The US really did not have to give up anything to get that from Russia. We got that and then we sort of ran out of things to work on, and that is sort of a testament of Russia’s weakness. So, even if Trump really wanted to have a good relationship with Russia, I do not know realistically what that such cooperation would look like. Of course, we would have better relations, but my sense is that the only way Putin, in his mind, would truly have good relationships with us is if the United States does things like pulling our troops out of this part of the world or slamming the door shut on any NATO enlargement. I don’t see United States doing that, even despite what Donald Trump may want to do.

Good relations between the heads of two superpowers immediately remind people in Eastern Europe of things like the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact...

Trump might think about loads of things, but I don’t think that the system would let him. The Congress has shown overwhelmingly that it will step up and stop anything, but, of course, this presidency will test our Constitutional system like it has not been tested for 40 years, since our Watergate scandal.

Will Trump remain in his post for all of his four year term?

I think so, but the Congressional elections next November will be very important because if the Democrats regain one of the houses at Congress then there will be a lot more pressure on the administration. But we have to assume that the president will be in office for a full term and will be a very formidable candidate for reelection. I think that there is one thing that the people have learned about Donald Trump – certainly do not underestimate him politically!

Derek Chollet is the executive vice-president of the US German Marshall Fund and former defense and international security official in US President Barack Obama’s administration