North America

What to make of Trump's mixed messages

Julianne Smith on how to deal with the US cabinet’s mixed messages on Nato and Russia

President Trump, left, his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, centre, and Secretary of Defence James Mattis, right

It is not uncommon for US presidents to encounter situations where their cabinet members appear to be off-message. Yes, each president chooses his own cabinet with the aim of identifying people they believe will support and help implement their policy agenda. But as we have witnessed many times throughout our history, even the most loyal cabinet member can arrive in office with their own agenda.

As a result, cabinet members sometimes cross signals with the White House in speeches, Congressional testimony, or policy announcements. What is rare, however, is for such contradictions to become so apparent even before a president is sworn into office.

The gaps in worldview on Russia and NATO alone between President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State, Secretary of Defence and National Security Adviser, which were on full display during various confirmation hearings, are unnerving. And they raise serious questions about whose views will prevail during the Trump administration.

Let’s start with NATO. Atlanticists in Europe and the United States were stunned in March of last year when then presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted that the NATO alliance was ‘obsolete’.

A few months later, in an interview with The New York Times, Trump stated that the US would come to the aid of NATO allies ‘if they fulfill their obligations to us’.

In other words, the US would meet its Article 5 commitments only in cases where the NATO ally in question was spending the target threshold of 2 per cent of GDP.  Transatlantic analysts and policy-makers were shocked but they reassured themselves with the assumption that Trump would not win the election. Many assumed that even if Trump were to win, his disparaging remarks about the world’s most successful military alliance were more bluster than policy.

After Trump did win the election, committed Atlanticists anxiously waited for the confirmation hearings of both Rex Tillerson and James Mattis to provide additional clues about the administration’s true policy views.

Would, as many expected, those two men confirm the fundamental value of NATO and transatlantic partners in their confirmation hearings? Would they avoid saying anything definitive so as to leave decision space for the incoming president? Or would they repeat Trump’s claim?

To the relief of audiences around the globe, both Tillerson and Mattis made a number of statements that not only stressed the importance of NATO but also reaffirmed that the US would continue to stand behind its Article 5 commitments. In his senate confirmation hearing, Mattis said: ‘NATO is the most successful military alliance probably in modern world history, maybe ever.’ In addition, in a number of meetings and engagements with European allies during the transition, the President’s National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, went out of his way to stress the value of NATO and the transatlantic relationship.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of the debate. On January 16, only days before his inauguration as the 45th President of the United States, Trump repeated in an interview with The Times that NATO was obsolete but added that it was still ‘very important to me’.

Trump also held a press conference with the British Prime Minister Theresa May in which she stressed that the two leaders had both agreed about the value of the NATO alliance. Since then and throughout the early days of the new administration, allies have been struggling to determine which set of views on NATO represent the truth. Will the new administration maintain the long-held view that NATO, while imperfect, is also indispensable? Or is the administration preparing for a radical disruption of US alliances?

NATO isn’t the only issue ringing alarm bells across the European continent. Russia is another area over which the Trump administration is already clearly divided. Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and promised to engage with Russia, especially on cooperating in Syria to combat the Islamic State group. That position puzzled both Republicans and Democrats, since Russia’s aggression in its immediate neighbourhood and beyond has been well documented, creating a widely held, bipartisan view that Putin is dangerous and untrustworthy.  Trump’s statements on Russia also troubled skittish allies in Eastern Europe about the likelihood of a grand bargain between the US and Russia over the heads of European allies.

Even when news broke in the autumn of 2016 about Russian cyber-hacking and supposed interference in the US election – possibly directed by the Kremlin – Trump tried to discount those claims, noting in the first presidential debate that: ‘It could be Russia. It could also be China. It could also be someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400lb.’

After a briefing with top US intelligence officers in early January and the release of a declassified intelligence report that pointed definitively at Putin, Trump continued to downplay Russia’s role in the election.  

These statements have worried many members of Congress as rumours swirl that Trump could unilatera-lly lift sanctions even before the US has conducted a thorough  investigation into what exactly Russia did during the US election.

Similar to the NATO issue, Atlanticists on both sides of the Atlantic turned to the confirmation hearings of Mattis and Tillerson for reassurance, and that’s exactly what they found. General Mattis, in his hearing on January 12, stated that: ‘Since Yalta, we have had a long list of times where we’ve tried to engage positively with Russia. We have a relatively short list of successes in that regard.’

He went on to note that, ‘the most important thing right now is that we recognize the reality of what we’re dealing with in terms of Mr Putin, and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic Alliance, and that we take the integrated steps, diplomatic, military and working with our allies to defend ourselves where we must.’

Similarly, Tillerson stated in his January 11 confirmation hearing: ‘I would recommend maintaining the status quo [on sanctions] until we were able to engage with Russia and understand better what their intentions are.’

Despite those reassuring statements and several phone calls to European allies from Secretary Mattis during the first week of the new ad-ministration, many Europeans remain confused. They feel uncertain about the Trump administration’s plans vis-à-vis Russia and whether European capitals will be consulted before any fundamental shifts in the US-Russia relationship or US-NATO relationship. The vague readout from the phone call between President Trump and President Putin on January 28 only triggered more questions for US allies. Do they continue to assume engagements with Trump’s cabinet reflect the direction of the administration or do they prepare for policies that more accurately reflect Trump’s Twitter feed?

The short answer, at least for now anyway, appears to be both. European allies should engage early and often with President Trump’s cabinet to seek reassurance and encourage public statements about the value this administration places in the transatlantic relationship. But as an insurance policy, European policy-makers should seek opportunities to engage directly with President Trump on the many ways in which the relationship and alliances like NATO benefit the United States. They should also come to those conversations with concrete ideas on how to make those relationships and institutions more agile, effective, and innovative.