The grand national political conventions in the US have ended and the Republicans have chosen Donald Trump as their candidate. It’s an unbelievable result. A reality tv star who has no political experience and whose presidential aspirations were initially mocked by main stream Republicans, has now become their official candidate.
Trump obviously does not share the consensus view of post-World War II USA as the leader of the free world. American leadership isn’t based only on military might, it’s founded first and foremost on values, which are shared and protected by the United States’ many allies around the world. These alliances have also helped guarantee US security and economic progress. The US has seen periods of isolationism in the past, for example before the First and Second World Wars. Both of those tragic events demonstrate how dangerous it is when America shuts itself out of the world.
Trump doesn’t believe that America is fit to lead the free world because he has nothing to offer it (Trump’s last book was titled “Crippled America”). In his view, America is indeed poor and crippled, with its allies squeezing every last drop of juice out of it, yet Trump believes that autocratic dictators can apparently be of great help to his country. In the past few weeks, Trump has stated that NATO has become “outdated”, and that he would reconsider acknowledging Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He has invited Russia to hack his opponent’s emails. His supporter and former speaker of the US House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, who once supported NATO expansion into the Baltics, now calls Estonia “a suburb of St. Petersburg”, and says that Estonia is not worth defending. While Trump himself hasn’t directly said so, Gingrich simply expanded and clarified Trump’s logic.
…defense spending is intended to enhance national defensive capabilities, not to “pay” America.
There is no doubt that all of this presents Estonia with a serious security problem. NATO protects its members with deterrence and this has been widely discussed in the post Warsaw NATO summit analysis. Deterrence is a intellectual construct, and in regards to US interests and security, that deterrence begins at the Narva River. If the US president articulates the opposite, then the effectiveness of deterrence is considerably diminished. If the automatic triggering of Article 5 is ignored, then there will be little meaning left in the businessman’s logic of only defending those who pay the most. It should be noted, that defense spending is intended to enhance national defensive capabilities, not to “pay” America. In a word, the stakes in this US election are significant for Estonia. It’s extraordinary for NATO, Russia and the defense of Estonia, to have emerged as major issues in a US presidential election and where one candidate’s positions have become so completely unacceptable to us.
Can Trump win? Yes – unfortunately. Roughly half of the US electorate does not trust the current mainstream politicians. There’s a strong desire to tear down the current US political system and the best candidate to achieve this is Trump. Despite the fact that Trump has violated all of the rules of normal political conduct, insulted all minorities, and has been completely politically incorrect, he is still more-or-less tied with Clinton, in the national polls, if not slightly behind. His approaches to free trade, migration and terrorism are surprisingly popular in the US. Yet his political style may yet jeopardize his campaign if he goes too far with his insults.
With Trump, Russia will play a hardball game unlike any he has every experience in any business negotiations.
Therefore, we can assume that from January 20th, the US president may indeed be the TV star and hotelier Donald Trump. Not necessarily – but it might be so. Of course, life in Estonia will go on the day after, nothing will happen immediately, but there is no doubt that Russia will quickly start testing the highly inexperienced president’s limits. Despite being very weak on foreign policy, his statements demonstrate that he doesn’t seem to be bothered at all by his lack of knowledge. With Trump, Russia will play a hardball game unlike any he has every experience in any business negotiations.
Some believe that if Trump wins the election, the US will continue to engage in consensus based foreign policy. It is possible- but unlikely. Trump isn’t a product of a traditional US political background, nor is his upbringing, attitudes or his activities. One reason Trump is so popular, for many, is the belief that he simply does not fit into the existing political system.
Usually, Estonian diplomats, politicians and think-tank analysts would have long ago connected with friends who are advising presidential candidates. But Trump hasn’t any advisors, at least none who understand foreign policy. He has some well-known supporters, even Newt Gingrich, but there’s nothing to discuss with him. It is, however, imperative that we find the right diplomatic tools to protect the traditionally excellent relations between the US and Estonia. Estonia’s agreements and are all concluded with the United States of America as a state, not with a single, individual, person.
The US president has enormous power, but that power is balanced by Congress, as well as international treaties and agreements made by the government. The US system, where budget allocations are made made and ratified by Congress, leads to a situation where every major decision requires the approval of Congress. It is possible that Congress, including Republicans in Congress, will be alienated from President Trump, which may cause Congress to independently influence US policy decision.
Consequently, we must further strengthen Estonian relations with Congress, and perhaps increase the number of diplomats in our Washington Embassy. Estonian political parties should also consider connecting and working with colleagues in Congress. There is no doubt that the new Congress will be composed of a large number of delegates who are familiar with Estonia and with whom we already have a long-term relationship.
Despite the fact that the Trump campaign doesn’t have any foreign policy advisers, he may in the future appoint to his administration those who are acquainted with Estonia. The US president simply can not afford to govern with a tiny circle of people when the number of senior bureaucrats (ministers, deputy minister, assistant ministers, heads of agencies, deputies, etc.) in the administration which total approximately 1,200 people. All of these people must receive the approval of a Congress, that may not be exactly friendly. A large number of Republican foreign policy experts who traditionally take leading positions have already burned their bridges with Trump. Trump will still need to appoint “technocrat” diplomats (many of whom are familiar with Estonia) who are loyal, and they too will require the approval of Congress.
Estonia has largely centered its own security and defense on cooperation with the United States, but Trump’s potential accession requires the need to think more about cooperation between European nations. NATO certainly will not dissolve, but a Trump presidency could lead to the need for a more active European role in NATO. Unfortunately, massive reductions in the armed forces of some NATO members have left many European states in a difficult position. Britain, which has significant military capabilities, has now become a somewhat hesitant European nation. It will be very important to retain the active participation of Great Britain in European affairs, despite Brexit.
Estonia’s EU presidency will come at a time when a potential Trump administration is completely configured and functioning (normally a new US administration takes six months to start fully working). During his campaign, Trump has treated the EU with deep resentment, claiming that the EU was created with the single goal of “making more money than the USA”. After Brexit, Trump rejoiced, that the UK had taken back their country. In short, Trump has abandoned the long held US perception that European integration was created to protect peace and stability, which is also in the interests of the United States. Instead, Trump regards the EU as a competitor, and views its weakening as positive. The EU-US free trade agreement, (TTIP) is also in danger of being lost. It is difficult to imagine that Trump is a supporter of Eastern Partnership [outreach initiative between EU and Eastern states, like Georgia, Ukraine and others]. Estonian diplomacy must be carefully directed and navigated in order to help maintain the European Union’s internal unity and good relations with the US.
Trump’s rise to become a US presidential candidate is an important example of the emerging unpredictability of the world around us. That which we take for granted today, for which we have worked so hard, we may now be in danger of losing. We must defend Estonia’s interests regardless of what may come.
This piece originally appeared in Estonian in Postimees and has been translated by UpNorth with the permission of the author.