Tomorrow, America’s national defense will be taken over by someone who has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and has expressed disdain toward America’s intelligence community, which believes Russia is a threat to the nation’s security. But that’s only one of his biggest challenges, and given what he’s said about his defense policy so far, here’s what we can expect.
Soon-to-be President Donald Trump believes NATO is “obsolete” and has accused CIA Director John Brennan of leaking the explosive dossier alleging Russia has compromising information on him. Trump, however, has expressed doubt over Russia’s involvement in the hacking of America’s election.
In many ways, Trump is facing similar challenges President Barack Obama had to contend with when he first entered office, such as an expansionist Russia in Eastern Europe and a territorial Beijing on the South China Sea. However, those relationships will always be fraught with conflict as the geopolitical outlooks those nations run in sharp contrast to ours. However, what makes a Trump White House worrisome is his disdain for the intelligence agencies and his stated aversion to diplomacy.
All outward appearances make it look like our future president trusts Putin’s denial more than the CIA’s confirmation. As Trump prepares to be sworn into office, he will be confronted with some pressing defense issues that will determine the fate America’s long term geopolitical security.
Trump wants to trash the Iran Deal, he’s ratcheted up hostility towards China and has warned—rather inaccurately—that America is in an arms race; he once said that more countries should have nuclear weapons. There is no time in recent memory where an incoming U.S. president has evoked more concern around America’s military and outright fear among its allies over its future defense policy.
Let’s take Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as an example. Trump has blamed Obama for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation Crimea, and his subsequent economic sanctions he has enacted against Moscow. However, he has not proposed a defense approach that would blunt future Russian incursions of its neighbors’ sovereignty. Trump’s vague overtures to improve relations with Moscow have included few details over how he plans to deal with Putin as well as manage our allies’ fears that Russia may want to invade them as well.
In reality, the only way to pressure Russia into not repeating its actions against Ukraine is to continue and expand the current sanctions, which Obama has extended to March of 2018. Trump’s secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, has been non-committal on the subject of sanctions. But his company, ExxonMobil, successfully lobbied against a bill that would have made it harder for the next incoming president to lift sanctions against Russia; Tillerson has denied knowing anything about this, which is complete bullshit, of course. Recently, Trump has proposed to lift them in exchange for Russian being willing to cut back on its nuclear arms program.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov rejected the idea, saying that “sanctions are not a subject for dialogue. We have never discussed any criteria for the listing of sanctions and are not doing it now. All these sanctions were introduced under contrived and illegitimate pretexts.” Translation: Trump can go fuck himself, if that’s what he wants.
Moreover, lifting the sanctions is a bad idea for several reasons. For one, it will only convince Russia that it can steal territory from its neighbors and the West will turn a blind eye in return, it will also signal to America’s NATO allies that no matter how egregiously Russia behaves, all will be forgiven if the “right deal” can be struck in exchange. Ukraine will be left in the lurch, and so will NATO.
Another problem Trump will eventually have to face is his dismissiveness over NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance. Last summer, he said there’s a chance he would not honor Article 5 under the North Atlantic Treaty, which requires member states to support each other militarily in the event one of them is attacked. Since then, Putin has deployed nuclear-capable missiles to the Baltic and Polish borders.
On the cyber warfare front, Germany’s Angela Merkel has accused Russia of leading disinformation campaigns during its general elections. At a time when the NATO alliance would be coming together to figure out how it would respond to cyberattacks, Europe is left unsure of where Trump truly stands about its very existence.
If Russia does invade the Baltics or launch a robust cyberattack, as many of its leaders fear, will Trump stand behind them? There is no sure indication that he will, given his reluctance to say one negative word about Putin and his stubborn denial that Russia wants to undermine America’s security, which he will be in charge of in a few days.
The Iran Deal, designed to prevent Tehran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program and help it reintegrate into the international community, and which Trump wants to scrap, will also be a major issue to contend with over at least the next few months. The main priority of the deal was to expand the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspection capacity, thus ensuring Iran wasn’t using hidden sites and other means to enrich uranium that can produce nuclear weapons. In exchange, Tehran would be rewarded by slowing being reintegrated back into the world economy.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed that Iran is sticking to the terms of the deal, with a few minor violations that Iran has since rectified. In return, Iran has been able to produce oil at pre-sanction levels and recover billions in frozen assets. Even Trump’s secretary of defense nominee James Mathis says the deal shouldn’t be tossed; so do 75 nuclear arms experts.
That said, he could undermine the deal, but it would not be a simple exercise, according to ABC News. For example, Trump could work with Congress to impose sanction that were already lifted or sanction aviation companies from selling to Iran. That, in effect, would end Boeing’s deal with Tehran. Axing that $16.6 billion dollar contract with Boeing would likely infuriate the Iranians, convincing them to abandon them deal altogether.
The Iran Deal is designed to convince Tehran that if it obeys international norms, it will be treated as a normal member of the global community. In effect, it will turn a hostile player into a more cooperative one. If most atomic energy expects feel this deal is good for America’s national security and our neighbors in the Middle East, it only makes the U.S., not Tehran, the hostile party for wanting to dismantle it.
An equally troubling development is Trump’s insistence of provoking China, namely speaking with Taiwan’s president soon after winning the U.S. election. Indeed, Beijing poses several threats against U.S. interest in the South China Sea and our allies. As Foxtrot Alpha previously reported, Beijing is building artificial islands in areas of the South China Sea that its neighbors (Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines) believe belong to them. Our allies in the region depend on America to maintain security of the area that produces more than $5 trillion in trade each year; America makes up $1.2 trillion of that total.
If any military conflict were to arise between China and America in the South China Sea, it would harm regional economies, cut off trade routes and increase insurance rates as a result of cargo ships having to take different routes that will delay delivery times.
And, as The Diplomat accurately points out, America and its allies have to realize that China is the top dog and the region and any solution to the conflict will leave Beijing as the overall victor. It would be wise for America to help its allies build up their economies so that they will depend less on Chinese products and reduce competition among themselves. Trying to contend with a powerful China will only risk an unneeded conflict that can be resolved by tough negotiating and accepting that Beijing will generally get its way in the South China Sea. Expanding and diversifying trade among our allies in the region, not bluster against Beijing, will avoid conflict in the South China Sea.
America is entering a new phase of national security that seems to have half the whole world either angry at, unsure of or frustrated with its new leader’s outlook on security.