Welcome Donald Trump, Baltics! The Presidency To Endure?

  • 2017-01-11
  • Linas Jegelevicius

As the US President-elect Donald Trump looks eagerly forward to the official inauguration on January 20th, the Baltic leaders, officially, brave up themselves - and the public - that the Twitter-brandishing eccentric and sardonic US leader will tone down the rhetoric and turn out to be a good friend of the Baltics. Yet, off-record, TBT sources claim, the leaders have set to brave out the Trump presidency. As far as what to expect from Donald Trump at the White House, The Baltic Times asked Mark Hertling, the retired Commanding General of the US Army Europe and the Seventh Army and, now, among other stints, a national security and military analyst for CNN, and William E. Pomeranz, the deputy Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies.

With a few days till Donald Trump’s inauguration left, the world is playing a guessing game:  will the rhetoric Trump employed during the White House race be enacted? What is your prediction in this regard?

Mark Hertling: Even since you originally wrote this note, I believe that the Trump phenomenon is imploding.  The Russian hacking is separating his party, his comments about paying for a wall are hurting him this morning, and every day will be another chapter of an emerging disconnect between what was said, and what he is doing.  And I believe the American press has been renewed in their professionalism rather than their business sense...They see what a disaster this could be.  What concerns me is how much of the government will be damaged, given a lack of credentials of many of the cabinet selections, before something can right the ship. And how will that righting take place?

William E. Pomeranz: Until I learn otherwise, I take Donald Trump at his word. He has not said anything of buildings walls since he was elected. I don’t anticipate there will be a wall, one to be paid by Mexico. But he continues talks of wanting to have a new relationship with Russia and has consistently expressed his admiration for President Vladimir Putin, which is going to cause significant political consequences in the Unites States. His domestic agenda is largely embraced, but his desire to have a better relationship with Russia will go against him, because there will be US senators and congressmen who will put roadblocks up for him to let it happen.

Do you believe that, in hammering out a better relationship with Russia and Putin, Donald Trump might sacrifice Eastern Europe, leave alone the Baltics?

 William E. Pomeranz: That is the question that we have very little indications about, in terms of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, I mean. He did however speak of NATO as a pay-as-you-go institution, which would obviously have a significant effect on Eastern European and Baltic security. What this means in practice, no one knows. We just don’t know what his real intentions are. I have to emphasize that.
I think the initial place where Trump might sacrifice something is Ukraine. If his goal indeed is to end sanctions with Russia and if he ends sanctions, which were meant to support Ukraine, without getting any sort of concessions from Russia, then clearly, removing them unilaterally would be a devastating message for Ukraine.

What do you believe are the signs to watch for, short-term, in Trump’s defense policies and executive orders as the new Commander-in-Chief and the new President of the United States of America?

Mark Hertling: Mr. Trump will be tested, as all new presidents are.  Will it be from an expanding Russia in Europe, testing the limits of NATO resolve?  A missile launch from North Korea?  Terrorist attacks in our country (it seems strange that that front has been quiet in the US since the Pulse shootings; I don’t expect that to last)?  A massive cyber attack that creates problems with infrastructure?  A wild card action by Taiwan or China against Taiwan?  There are several more things that could cause problems to occur, and I believe the Trump administration will rely mostly on Mattis (Gen. James Mattis, the President-elect’s choice for Secretary of Defense-L.J.), but I’m concerned about the influence of Flynn (Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor-L.J.)  The first test, in my view, will reveal much about processes, decision making, and potential for the new administration’s team to come together.  And I’m not sure it will be pretty.  
Having said that, though, I don’t believe Putin is dumb enough to provide the first test.  That might prove to be an early tactical win for the Russians, but it would be a huge strategic mistake.  I think we will be tested by North Korea.

William E. Pomeranz: I think the crucial thing to see is whether he tries to raise terror or whether he tries to introduce it. It all depends on how he phrases what legislation he will rely on in doing so. Declaring China as currency manipulators, raising terror, and lifting Russian sanctions are the things to watch for first.

I understand that this question should be directed to a political analyst, yet let me direct it to you: How worried should the world be of the build-up of globalization and integration-renouncing governments in Europe and across the globe? Do you believe the trend will go on in 2017? Most importantly, does this bode a sinister omen to the Unites States, the “good policeman” of the world?

Mark Hertling: I am concerned about the trend lines of anti-globalization, integration renouncing, and isolationist tendencies that are going on in many governments.  While the uninformed might believe that this is the way to reduce threats, anyone who studies national security understands that national power is made from being strong economically, politically, with public information, and militarily.  If a nation relies only on security forces (military and police) to close borders and counter globalization, nations will suffer due to the decrease in trade, lack of engagement and cultural/historical understanding, and a reduction in the free flow of information that is available in a global environment.  Doing so will create a social backwardness, and lean more toward autocratic authoritarianism, rather than representative democracies and societies which value expansion and the value of the individual.

William E. Pomeranz: The anti- globalization and anti-integration rhetoric won’t be retracting in the new year. With the passage of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, as well as the other discouraging signs in other countries, we see a rise of protectionism and retreat from globalization and the economic practices of the Post-Cold War era. With regard to the upcoming election in France, the Netherlands and Germany, I am not a domestic expert on the politics in those three countries, but broadly speaking, one assumes that the populist forces are going to do better in those elections than one would have thought a year or two ago.

As trends definitely play into the hands of Russia, is the free world capable of averting them? Or of mitigating the consequences at least?

Mark Hertling: All autocratic/authoritarian governments want more control, but those who have been given the right of freedom and dignity quickly realize when their rights are being taken away. So, while it appears the trends might be leaning towards Russia and China, it is more likely due to misinformation than true belief in what is the right approach.  In a way, increasing security and reducing immigration play into the strategy of those who are extremists (and who are terrorists), and I have been in conflicts where it finally took the majority of the population to realize that they needed to fight back against the very few who wanted to abound with rights.

William E. Pomeranz: One of things we have learnt over the last year and a half, and indeed in the last couple of months, is the unpredictability of Donald Trump. No one knows if he means what he says and how deep his convictions are to pursue what he says. But if it’s true that he wants to highlight and shame every US company that anticipates moving abroad, we are about to enter a very different era. And as we enter a new era, the question is if we start to move against the rules, and what replaces them. Donald Trump is very good at speaking out about what he does not like, but we still await what his solutions are, or an alternative set of rules for the replacement.

If you were trying to see a silver lining in the developments, do you believe that Russia itself might start, sooner or later, looking and voting for someone who is out of Kremlin-orchestrated politics? What do you believe is the probability?

Mark Hertling: There is always the potential for a “revolution” in politics, in any country.  But my experience with Russia indicates that a true revolution toward a more representative and truthful government would be a very difficult thing.  Russia is a very complicated culture, with a very complex population.  It is hard to overcome propaganda with truth, especially in a society that has a history of difficult times, and a people that have overcome many hardships.  There is a fundamental distrust of the West in Russia, based on propaganda, but also based on very different cultural/historical beliefs.  I have seen that in many visits.  Even the current economic depravity has shored up their belief in a government that is clearly lying, murdering diplomats and journalists, and is corrupt to its core.  So, I don’t see this happening any time soon.

William  E. Pomeranz: Putin has been very successful so far in making people that there are no other alternatives to Vladimir Putin. I do not anticipate, just yet, a non-establishment figure who will rise in Russia anytime soon. One able to challenge Vladimir Putin. I want to see if the decisions by the Strasbourg and Russian courts to overturn the conviction of Alexei Navalny, and let him run in the Russian presidential race in 2018, and to what extent he would be allowed to participate in it. What we’ve discovered so far is that Putin has not learned from Mikhail Gorbachev’s mistakes. By allowing Boris Yeltsin to emerge e.g., which turned out to be a great alternative.

With the US and EU sanctions against Russia in the wake of the downing of a Malaysian jetliner in 2014, few thought that Russia would be able to largely withstand their adverse impact on its economy and, moreover, rise to be a key player in the Syrian conflict. Is the lackluster Obama administration only to blame for all?

Mark Hertling: No, I do not believe it is “only” the Obama administration to blame.  Again, going back to your earlier question, Putin’s propaganda, his government’s kleptocracy and corruption, and different degrees of distrust of the West as a whole also contributes.  I believe Obama made Putin a “bogeyman” to blame, and every dictator needs someone to blame.  If things change, and Trump changes his approach and doesn’t relieve sanctions or reinforces the support of Ukraine, he will quickly turn into the target...and will be even more damaged due to the current Russian belief that he is on their side.  Putin wants friends he can take advantage of, and enemies he can blame. He is the perfect Machiavelli:  he has a duplicitous interpersonal style, a complete and cynical disregard for morality, and a focus only on wealth, resurgence of the Soviet state, self-interest and personal gain. He is the modern day Stalin, and it will take much to displace him and his ideas.

You were straightforward as general and you are a very honest man, so can you say frankly: Would you stand by a Commander-in-Chief like Donald Trump?

Mark Hertling: Like all military, I took an oath to defend the ideas embodied in our Constitution, and I also said I would obey the orders of the President.  However, there is also the requirement to ensure that before obeying orders, knowing that they are legal, ethical, and moral.  If I were still in uniform, I would execute the orders of the president, if they met those categories, and I suspect others would as well.  If they weren’t, and I was in a position to give advice (if I were the Chairman, a service chief, or a Combatant Commander, for example, and had direct contact with the President), I would attempt to persuade toward appropriate courses of action...or I would resign.  Those are the options leaders in a civilian controlled military have.

You, perhaps, cannot rule out the possibility that some of the top-tier generals might quit their jobs with Donald Trump as the Commander-in-Chief…

Mark Hertling: They will not initially, I don’t believe.  But I have already heard many in the ranks discussing resigning their commission.  That is anecdotal, and applies to just a few, but I will say that many of my friends in the senior ranks are concerned about what will emerge as a national security strategy, changes to operational plans, and how they will present a sound national military strategy linked to the security strategy.

How well do you believe Eastern Europe is protected militarily? Are the Baltics a different story in defense? Why?

Mark Hertling: I believe the NATO alliance will hold strong.  Putin will play around the edges, covertly threaten members of the council, but overtly threaten those who are not (Ukraine, Georgia, others).  As you know, I was a strong proponent of keeping more forces in Europe, but I also know the US was not the only one reducing the size of their force, and paying less for military security.  I believe it is primarily up to the Europeans - singly and as a whole - to reevaluate their military posture as a coalition and an alliance.

Lately, NATO has done a lot of ramping up of the Baltics’ security. As former Commanding General of U.S. Army Europe and the Seventh Army, what do you believe still needs to be done to bolster it, short-term and long-term?

Mark Hertling: I saw an increase of Baltic security forces before I left Europe in 2013.  Each of the Baltic Countries had able and spirited conventional forces, and an emerging SOF capability which is energized, tested, and passionate.  But the military in those three countries are small, and they depend on others for mutual security.  I believe our Army rotational forces are providing.

Which of three Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, do you think is more vulnerable than the other two? Why?

Mark Hertling: Lithuania, due to influence of the Russian population and the proximity to Kaliningrad.  The Russians might again use any excuse to say they are “defending” that strategic location, and their use of non-linear warfare and propaganda would influence any actions there.

The US launched a long-awaited Eastern European missile defense shield last year, but it does not seemingly encompass the Baltics. Is that right?  

Mark Hertling: I’d prefer not to answer the missile defense questions, due to classification.

What do you believe the Baltics ought to do on their own besides increasing military spending up to 2% of their GDP?

Mark Hertling: Continue to do what they are doing in partnering with other European nations in their military security plans.  Inform the population.  Get the military spending above 2%.  Get more influence in US schools and press.

Do you support the idea of a European army?  

Mark Hertling: No.  I saw too many “Corps” (French-German, German-Dutch, POLUKR, etc.) of different nations coming together, and I believe instead of a European Army, we should continue to look to strengthen NATO’s operational commands, training, exercises and approaches.

Do the Baltics have any other than diplomatic means to get Donald Trump, demonstrating affinity to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, on their side?

Mark Hertling: Yes, playing to our Senate and Congress, and ensuring they are partnering with EUCOM and our military as to their needs.  The visit by McCain and Graham was timely, and I believe the Baltics should take a page out of Israel’s book:  invite a lot of members of our Congress, Defense Officials in the new Trump Administration, American Media, and hold conferences with various Washington--based think tanks to continue to press the agenda and the story of the 1991 revolution (most Americans know nothing about what occurred), and the precarious position the Baltic States (and Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, etc.) are in, based on Russian/Putin’s desire for expansion.

William E. Pomeranz: I think the best way the Baltics can assert their interests and make sure that their interests are taken to account is by cultivating as many friends in the US Congress as possible. I am not sure to what extent Donald Trump will or will not listen to the appeals from the small Eastern European countries, but potentially, he might listen to US legislators. And that is really the biggest potential influence on Donald Trump. I don’t think, however, that he will be engaged with the problems of a broader EU. It might turn out that he gets engaged so much domestically, that he won’t have time to address many international issues.