The annual Halifax International Security Forum in Canada brought together senior Canadian, European, and U.S. military and civilian officials, and you can guess what was on everyone’s mind this year:
What kind of foreign policy can we expect from President-elect Trump?
To be more specific, the crowd was eager to pump U.S. participants, including a bipartisan delegation of senators, about whether Trump would turn his back on NATO and cozy up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many asked whether the president-elect might hold an early meeting with Putin even before getting together with NATO allies – which would send a dangerous signal.
The Europeans fear that Trump could sell out Ukraine in exchange for a “deal” with Russia on Syria. Any such deal, they say, would undercut the broader security and stability of Europe – and the United States.
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However, as several senators made clear at Halifax, Trump would face bipartisan opposition within the Senate if he recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its invasion of eastern Ukraine.
What was striking in Halifax was Europeans’ uncertainty about Trump’s intentions due to his public disdain for NATO and his praise for Putin. At a time when Putin is trying to facilitate the rise of the radical right in Europe as well as the breakup of the European Union, Trump appears ready to help him.
So the Europeans were anxious to know whether Trump really meant what he said about NATO or even grasped the impact of his words.
“The erosion of confidence and trust is corrosive,” said Pauline Neville-Jones, a former British government security minister, at a panel on NATO. “We need more NATO, not less NATO,” added Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. “The situation in the world requires cooperation between Europe and the United States.”
The test case for Trump’s intentions will be whether he plays Putin’s game on Ukraine.
The Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory in 2014 ended the post-World War II understanding on the continent that sovereign boundaries would not be changed by force. It also violated the 2004 Budapest Memorandum under which Moscow and Washington guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine in return for that country’s giving up its nuclear weapons.
“If you give up now on recognition of the annexation of Crimea, one of the building blocks of post-WWII peace will have been ruined,” Ukraine’s vice prime minister, Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, told me at the Halifax Forum.
Moreover, a sellout of Ukraine would raise further questions about America’s commitment to the NATO allies. After betraying the commitments to Ukraine made in the Budapest Memorandum, how would Washington get other nations to trust it on NATO guarantees?, asks the Ukrainian leader. If Russia sends “little green men” (the euphemism for Russian soldiers without military insignia) into NATO member countries such as Latvia or Estonia, would Trump even care?
If Trump isn’t willing to listen to European leaders on Ukraine, he might be persuaded by Congress, where GOP stalwarts such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have taken a firm stand on the issue, as have many other senators.
At the forum, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told me: “If President-elect Trump moved swiftly to try and trade Ukraine and Crimea and Syria with Putin, there would be strong bipartisan pushback. Many of the members have visited Ukraine and recognize the cost and consequences of Russian aggression.”
That doesn’t mean that the president-elect can’t dialogue with the Russian leader. But he faces a steep learning curve on how to deal with Putin and avoid disaster over Ukraine. There will be serious security consequences for America and Europe if Trump simply plunges ahead.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.