With tectonic shifts in global processes, it is becoming vital to renew discussions in Lithuania about the country’s foreign policy direction. The importance of such discussion is also underlined by the context of Lithuanian domestic politics – the presidential campaign marathon is gaining pace.
Russia remains the main security challenge in the region, in the West we can see a slew of negative international policy trends ranging from certain allies’ pandering rhetoric toward Russia to new and especially concerning signs of weakening transatlantic unity. All these processes are unfavourable for Lithuania and other countries in Eastern Europe interested in deterring Russia and force to seek new foreign policy venues, demand exceptional diplomatic capacities. As such, the Lithuanian president, who holds significant constitutional powers in foreign policy, who we will elect in 2019 must be notable for their abilities in foreign policy.
The root of the disagreements between Europe and the US President Donald Trump administration lies in already summer 2016 when republican candidate Donald Trump and democrat candidate became the final rivals running for office in the White House. The leaders of the liberal Western world then openly declared their support for Clinton in the belief that a Trump victory is hardly imaginable. The reasons for supporting Clinton were obvious. In a wide number of aspects, she was to continue the policies of Obama, which appealed to European leaders. In other terms, a representative of the globalist international system’s principles and interests. Meanwhile, Trump openly declared that his policy will be rooted in the nationalist principle of America first and at the same time was fully willing to criticise various international organisations, starting with trade agreements such as NAFTA and TTIP, ending with intergovernmental organisations such as NATO and the UN.
Raising US national interests above global interests, Trump criticised all the organisations and saw participation in them as detrimental to the USA. He was no longer content with the situation continuing since the end of the Cold War, where US efforts for the security and economic welfare of the Western world were inadequately larger, compared to other major states’ (such as Germany) contribution.
One can confidently claim that Trump has so far been faithful to his electoral promises of strict foreign policy. From the start of his term, the new administration has been constantly critical of NATO partners in Western Europe over inadequately small national defence budgets. The United Nations have also faced criticism, with the White House having even drafted an executive order draft on the reduction of US contributions to the UN.
At the same time, the US has already managed to declare its withdrawal from a number of agreements under the UN framework: in summer 2017 the Trump administration declared withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, which sought to combat global climate change, in autumn 2017 the US’ withdrawal from UNESCO was announced and finally on June 19, 2018, D. Trump’s administration also declared its withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council.
On March 2018, Trump struck a blow to global trade, declaring import tariffs on steel and aluminium, which marked the start of a developing process now dubbed a “trade war”. Finally, the differences of the European and US strategic visions were highlighted over Iran when the Trump administration chose to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement. Reacting to Trump’s policy toward Iran and international trade, European Council president Donald Tusk stated that Europe will “respond united” to the US leader’s decisions.
It is clear that both at the ideological level and in practical politics, the gaps between the transatlantic union are becoming ever more clear. Not only among European Union, but also European national leaders, the view is prevalent that the weakening of transatlantic relations is seemingly solely the result of Donald Trump’s nationalist and isolationist foreign policy and Europe is not to blame. True, during the presidency of Barack Obama, US policy was far more noted for how multilateral and consensus based it was. However, to claim, as is now popular, that Trump “has no idea what he’s doing” in foreign policy is absurd and baseless. Many of his demands to both UN and NATO partners in Europe, as well as trade partners are based on a realistic view of the international system. The US is not obliged to and cannot continue propping up a long recovered Europe, granting it exclusive trade conditions as a self-evident privilege and investing more into the alliance’s security than economically strong European states. If A. Merkel has the right, in the name of her popularity, to maintain impermissibly low defence financing, then can one really complain about D. Trump orienting his policies toward the welfare and security of US, not EU citizens?
Equally, the USA is not obliged to cooperate with obviously geopolitically hostile states such as Russia and Iran, toward which, policies of deterrence and containment are proven and open door reboot policy has almost never worked. Trump is certainly not the most lenient US president in relations with allies, but considering recent years, he cannot be blamed for leniency to rivals. Be it North Korea or Russia, or Iran, Trump, unlike Obama, uses hard diplomatic measures, first taking threatening rhetoric and respective actions and only afterward identifying prospective concessions and conditions for them. In simpler terms, first a display of how bad it can be, then a display of what the perspectives for improving relations are.
While the major European countries are concerned over economic relations with aggressive partners Iran and Russia, the White House bluntly states that European companies cooperating with Iran’s nuclear sector will face sanctions and countries cooperating with Russia regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project will not be exempt from international trade tariffs, regardless of potential trade war.
Trump is strict, his approach is completely different from his predecessor in the White House. He never concedes to others and enjoys others conceding to him. The weakening of transatlantic relations is a concerning process, however this is not solely Trump’s fault, but rather a consequence of newly forming national interests and domestic policy ambitions on both sides of the Atlantic. In this conflict, Lithuania should not seek to find out which side is universally more right or which leader is more sympathetic and chivalrous. Instead, it should seek to comprehend the new situation and make decisions based on its national interests.
First, of course we should remember the original purpose of transatlantic Western unity. This was a united opposition to the Soviet Union’s influence and deterrence of the threats it posed. The Soviet Union is no more, but did the threat from the East disappear? The threat emanating from Russia is equally relevant to Eastern Europe, Lithuania included, as was that emanating from the USSR to West Germany 30 years ago.
Nevertheless, Western European allies both at the national and supranational European Union level have demonstrated a number of times over recent years that they view Russia more as a problematic trade partner, not a threat. In this respect, US and UK policies are much closer to Lithuania than that of current EU leaders E. Macron and A. Merkel. It is a paradox that the French and German leaders do not shirk criticising Trump in recent times, while factually the Trump administration has demonstrated greater concern in European energy security, Eastern EU border security and deterring Russia from Ukraine, even more than both EU leaders taken together.
If the transatlantic gaps continue to deepen, we will inevitably reach a situation where we must choose between pro-European and pro-American foreign policy priorities. Today Lithuania’s policies are far inclined to the pro-European side, rather than the pro-American. It is worth raising a question and doubting whether such a choice matches Lithuania’s geopolitical interests. That our country needs a more pro-American foreign policy is revealed by our neighbours facing the same geopolitical challenges and having similar interests, the case in point being Poland. Quite likely, to this day, it is the most pro-American EU member state, rapidly deepening its cooperation with the USA in terms of both economy and energy. The governments of both countries do not avoid displaying particular favour to one another. Lithuanian politicians should consider following Poland as a good example.