Interview by Erik Eenlo, BNS
Q: The Trump administration seems to have decided to take on all adversaries at once, cranking up pressure (mainly sanctions but also military posture related activities) simultaneously on at least five countries – North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, China and Russia. Does that seem to you a clear-cut strategy or simply a much-needed basic adjustment signaling that the US means business after the heavily criticized fecklessness that the Obama administration came to be associated with?
François Heisbourg (FH): Trump’s list of enemies is both longer and shorter than you suggest: in his words, the EU is a ’foe’, ’worse than China’, as are multilateral bodies more broadly (notably the WTO, and on occasion, NATO). Bolton has added his own contribution, with Cuba and Nicaragua joining Venezuela in the ’troika of tyranny’. Conversely, Trump has a soft spot for Russia’s leader and what he stands for: now that the Muller investigation is over, the extent of that sympathy may gain in clarity and emphasis. You are right about Trump’s tendency to ramp up pressure simultaneously against all his enemies. In 2018, he refused quiet European overtures to play together against China. This is a very clear-cut non-strategy: a strategy usually implies the opposite approach of dividing one’s enemies and/or building up one’s own coalition.
This non-strategy does not mean that Trump doesn’t have a vision: he doesn’t want permanent and unconditional alliances, he only believes in temporary transactional arrangements.
His approach to Obama’s legacy is twofold: where Obama was decisive (for instance taking the lead in P5+1 negotiations with Iran), Trump does the opposite; where Obama was feckless – on the red-lines in Syria – Trump tends to follow suit. US policy in Syria and the Arab world more generally has been marked by substantial continuity.
However, on China, which is America’s biggest strategic challenge, Trump has gone much further than Obama’s „pivot to Asia“, a shift of priorities which will have big implications for Europe.
Q: Whether Brexit becomes reality is not yet clear. Should it happen, however, France will be the only nuclear power and permanent member of UN Security Council in the European Union. What will this mean for France and the EU more broadly?
FH: With or without Brexit, the French nuclear force will be able to continue to serve its past and current deterrent function, and bilateral nuclear cooperation with the UK, as conducted in the bilateral framework of the Lancaster House treaties naturally remains in place. What could change the role of France’s nuclear force is not Brexit but the prospect of an American withdrawal from its NATO commitment. But that’s not what you asked me about…
Q: France has stood side by side with the United States in Syria under both the Obama and the Trump administrations but criticized Trump´s announcement that the US would bring home its troops who are supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS. The White House announced later that 400 US soldiers will remain as a buffer between the Kurds and Turkey. What will this mean for France and how can the West pressure the Syrian government into recognizing the new reality that the Kurds and the US-led coalition have created in northern and eastern Syria?
FH: The US and its European allies lost the opportunity of weighing on the Syrian government when Obama refused to follow through the red line commitment in August 2013. Since then Russia has filled the void politically and militarily. American and European involvement is confined to two important but peripheral and contradictory issues: first, we have the ongoing fight against Daesh – which is not a specifically Syrian issue – in which the Kurds, and specifically the Communists of the PKK and its Syrian affiliates are our allies; secondly, there is the place and role of Turkey, a member of NATO, but which is at daggers drawn with the PKK. What you call a ’new reality’ is an extraordinarily unstable and combustible mixture, to be handled with exquisite care…
Q: Poland is working hard to secure a permanent US military base on its territory on a bilateral basis. Some people have made the argument that decisions of this magnitude need allied consensus and should be decided through NATO. What is your view?
FH: In history, a strong bilateral relationship such as the one between the UK and the US during the Second World War can be broadened and strengthened into a multilateral alliance: this is what happened with the creation of NATO. Conversely, it is rarely a good sign when a member of a multilateral alliance wants to carve out a bilateral regime, at the risk of giving the impression that the alliance is no longer good enough. That risk is particularly high if the American President is seen as questioning his country’s role in the Alliance. Seen from Moscow, Polish attempts to bilateralise the defense relationship with the US can only be viewed as a sign of fragility of the US commitment in Europe. ’Fort Trump’ is at heart a destabilising notion.
Q: NATO has done remarkably well in adapting its military posture and reinforcing its eastern member states in the last five years. What do allies need to do next in the Nordic-Baltic region for their common security and does Germany´s rising defense budget have a role to play here?
FH: Meeting the 2% of GDP target would obviously be a good thing, in Germany as elsewhere. However, it is even more important to increase the efficiency of our military spending: for instance, too many types of weapons systems create huge logistical costs and more importantly still, would generate huge penalties in combat. The EU’s recent decision to create a substantial European Defence Fund will hopefully generate over a ten-year period a much bigger „bang for the euro“ . I don’t usually look at Russia as a source of inspiration, but there is much to learn there in terms of what needs to be done to improve military efficiency.
And of course, we have the perennial issue of diverging strategic cultures, with Germany as the big and difficult player here. There used to be a time –and I’m talking about 20 years ago, not about world war two- when Germany was a full participant in the Kosovo air and land campaigns and in the opening stages of the post-9/11 operations in Afghanistan. My understanding is that the last time Germany „went kinetic” was in 2005. An effective defense of Europe, whatever its framework, implies a return to the path which Germany undertook during the Nineties, under Kohl and even Schröder with Joschka Fischer as the interventionist Green Foreign Minister, to bring its strategic positioning in line with that of its partners.
François Heisbourg is the Senior adviser for Europe of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Special advisor of the Paris-based Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS).