3 February 2017

In the Age of Trump, Britain needs a Plan B


“Hope for the best and prepare for the worst” is always a prudent maxim in security policy. But Donald Trump’s first, frenetic weeks in office have broadened the range of possible bad outcomes—and made them likelier.

The administration wants to move fast and break things, repairing any damage later if necessary. It believes that mainstream conservatives have fiddled pointlessly but pleasurably on the sidelines, while foreign rivals and domestic rot-mongers have sapped America’s greatness.

It does not care for elite, wonkish opinion—indeed it revels in outraging it. Every time the bien-pensant establishment reaches for smelling salts after yet another outrageous and clumsy move, Champagne corks pop in the White House. Irritating the old regime is a sign you are doing the right thing. Moreover, rapid, conspicuous and radical moves show loyal supporters that this administration at least is implementing the promises on which it was elected.

In the abstract, that is a defensible, even logical political strategy. In practice, it may work too. The medium-term goal is to keep Republican control of the Senate in the mid-term elections, now less than two years away. That means dotting the political calendar with a mixture of successes and rows. The President needs to show that he is getting things done, and is not afraid of a fight with those who stand in his way.

Where does that leave America’s allies? The initial signs are ominous. Mr Trump’s approach is haphazard, but he instinctively prefers autocrats to democrats. He is mistrustful of agreements and alliances: all too often they are a bad deal for America. His protectionist, mercantilist agenda can only be fulfilled at a price, mostly paid by others.

There have been some clear costs. He harangued and humiliated the Mexican president. But if Mexico’s economy collapses and populist anti-Americans take power again, that will be a much bigger problem than Mexican competitiveness. Loyal Australia has had the sharp edge of his tongue—and his tweets—over a deal on migrants struck by the Obama administration.

He has antagonised the European Union: Brexit was great, and America will try to encourage other countries to follow Britain’s lead. The ill-drafted temporary visa ban was pointlessly cruel and counterproductive.

Yet much of this fits into his domestic strategy. He promised to ban Muslims from entering the United States. What he has done is much less than that, but enough to show his supporters that he has not gone soft. Riling Mexico and China is practically a campaign promise. Fraying the nerves of snooty globalists in Brussels and Berlin—in so far as anybody notices it in Trumpland—is a plus.

The corners can be smoothed later. Already the visa ban has been softened, for example, to include Green Card holders. Domestically, the costs of such concessions are nil, while the gains are already in the bank.

Even abroad, this approach may work: the advantage of bad and unpredictable behaviour is that it lowers expectations—a point that was not lost on Richard Nixon’s administration. When the serious talking starts with Mexico or China or Germany, officials may be pleasantly surprised at the reasonableness of the American approach.

The biggest ground for optimism is that the administration has yet to take shape and the White House has yet to settle down. The chaotic and abrasive opening may set the public image of the presidency, but the day-to-day work will be in the hands of cautious and sober characters.

James Mattis at the Pentagon is a formidable Atlanticist with a strong personal commitment to the security of the frontline states. Rex Tillerson at the State Department knows Russia well. That means he is unlikely to think fondly of the people who run it.

These people already grasp the essential element of modern statecraft: that allies help you get more things done. Mr Trump’s victory was based on forming alliances at home—uniting the religious right with blue-collar workers for example. He may get the hang of it abroad as well.

European governments should, therefore, refrain from theatrical, irrevocable condemnation of the administration’s early mis-steps. Most administrations (though perhaps not Barack Obama’s) learn from their mistakes. These will become more costly as the mid-term elections of 2018 draw nearer.  Senate Republicans who risk losing their seats in an anti-Trump tide will be particularly vigilant. Moreover, the United States has strong, responsive institutions. In any tussle between Mr Trump and the constitution, it would be wise to bet on the constitution.

Of course, it may be that the US hurtles into a debilitating crisis or dictatorship. Giant mutant spiders may overrun Manhattan, too. But for now allies should aim to work wherever possible with the American government, lawmakers and people.

They may disagree with the administration on lots of things, and can say so calmly and privately. But publicly backing Donald Trump’s domestic opponents, however emotionally satisfying, is unlikely to bring much benefit. On that score, Theresa May’s firm-but-friendly approach looks broadly correct.

But we need plan B, too. Mr Trump’s loose talk (and tweets) have already corroded America’s greatest asset: its credibility. He is riding an isolationist rip-tide. It could run long and hard. That would mean that American security guarantees and diplomatic support were indeed no longer dependable.

If so, this will pose Britain with its hardest choices since the end of the Second World War. We have long been sceptical of European defence and security policy, repeatedly slapping down the European Union’s pretensions. For the most part, interest in stand-alone European defence has been inversely correlated with military knowledge and capability. Luxembourg and Belgium love talk of EU defence. Countries with real armed forces concentrate on Nato, because it works.

But supposing it doesn’t? One option is to reconfigure Nato, assuming dwindling or uncertain American support. Another is to join in efforts to beef up the nascent EU structures—creating a headquarters, developing plans, conducting exercises and the like. Neither is ideal.

A hollowed-out Nato will lack credibility. Building anything serious from scratch will take too long and cost too much. Russia already scents weakness in the Black Sea, Central Europe and Western Balkans. It will sniff more as the rot spreads—and act on what it smells.

The best answer is probably a fudge, based on intensified EU-Nato cooperation plus three ad hoc coalitions, of the scared, the capable and the willing. The scared are the frontline states. The speedy are the countries who can deploy troops at short notice. The willing are those where the public and decision-makers are willing to take risks and sacrifice lives in response to Russian aggression.

In Britain, these three categories overlap. We are deeply alarmed by Russia: a meeting of the National Security Council last week was devoted to the across-the-board threat that Russia poses to this country. We worry about espionage, cyber-attacks, bribery, influence-peddling, propaganda and the hard military threat, both at home and to our allies, especially in the Baltic states. Our security service, MI5, is hurriedly trying to restore a counter-subversion capability it abandoned in the late 1980s. Military intelligence is scrambling to regain its expertise in Russian language and culture.

But in most countries these categories don’t—yet—overlap. Georgia and Ukraine are scared and willing, but not capable: they can at best defend themselves but not others. The French are capable but not scared or willing. Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and similar, mostly southern European countries are neither scared, capable nor willing. The Nordic-Baltic-Polish nine, like Britain, are all three, but don’t, yet, share a security structure.

The task for policymakers in the coming months is to tease out the strongest combination from these unpromising ingredients, and then fill the gaps.  Cyber, information-warfare, counter-intelligence and economic weaknesses abound. But the biggest hole is a credible deterrent—something that would deter Russia from using its short-range nuclear weapons to “de-escalate” (ie win) a military conflict.

The European-made Storm Shadow (a stealthy cruise missile which is a central part of the RAF’s arsenal) is attracting increasing interest. Finland already has an American-made counterpart, the JASSM. Poland is getting it too. Unlike the strategic nuclear weapons which Britain and France have, these missiles can plausibly be used.

All this is going to be difficult, costly and probably dangerous. But having no Plan B will be even worse, as we peer nervously through the fog that surrounds our once most-reliable ally.

Edward Lucas writes for the Economist. He is also a senior vice-president at CEPA, a think-tank in Warsaw and Washington