US Foreign Policy: ‘The Worst Won’t Come Quickly’
30 January, 2017

Following the much anticipated phone conversations between American, Russian, German and French leadership, Ulrich Speck, Senior Research Fellow at The Brussels Office of Elcano Institute says, “there is some good news: sanctions will not be lifted immediately.” He adds that Trump backed NATO, and recognized the organization’s vital importance.

While many fear the possible changes of US foreign policy with Donald Trump as president, Speck says the worst is not going to happen quickly: “Maybe under pressure from congress, from allies, it's not going to be too bad.”

Speck suggests, though, that it is difficult to judge how much influence other leaders can have on Trump. “If he understand he needs partners, Merkel has a chance to influence him.”

Hromadske’s Nataliya Gumenyuk spoke to Ulrich Speck, Senior Research Fellow at The Brussels Office of Elcano Institute via Skype on January 29th, 2017 in Kyiv.

What we've learned from the phone calls between Trump and Merkel, Trump and Putin, Trump and Hollande is that there is some good news. Compared to what we have expected, or what we have feared before, sanctions will not be lifted immediately. We also have a confirmation in writing by the new U.S. president, saying that NATO is something of vital importance. This is an important statement. We heard last week that there may be an executive order lifting sanctions on Saturday. This was something that has been rumored. So this hasn't happened, and we don't know why. So there are two possibilities. One of them is internal pressure; especially John McCain has threatened to turn these sanctions into law in order to remove it from the president towards the Congress. It may have made an impression on the Trump administration; maybe they didn't want to pick a fight with the Republican Congress.

We can be cautiously optimistic that at least the worst is not going to happen quickly. There are two ways to look at this. One way would be that at the end of the day, Trump will become just another Republican president, at least from the perspective of Europe, relations with Russia. They are ideological; they want a real new world order, which is multipolar. They look at it with Russia as one pole and the U.S. is another, China is the third. They may just accept that the other countries have spheres of influence, and they have a right to the spheres of influence.

What could be an impact of Berlin and Angela Merkel, in particular, on Trump's policy and vice versa?

I take it as a good thing that Trump talked to Merkel before he talked to Putin. Unfortunately, he talked to Hollande only afterwards. But at least Merkel was in the game before, so she had 45 minutes to make her case. This tells us that she is an important leader to him, and he's not just fully ignoring allies and working over their heads. So in this case, he was not over the head of the Europeans. May was there, Merkel was there. How much influence do they have? It's very hard to say, because the decision-making process in the White House is not clear at all. It seems that even the secretary of state Rex Tillerson, and secretary of defense James Mattis are often not in the loop when it comes to major strategic decisions.

If Trump realizes that Europe is to a large degree united. It's an important trading block; it's the biggest trading block in the world. And if he understands that he lives in an international environment and has to work with the allies outside, then Merkel will be the person to go to as she has been for Obama.

If the Americans lift the economic sanctions, those sanctions, which really matter to Russia, would the EU also lift the sanctions? It's very hard to say. I think it depends now on the dynamic. If we move into the situation where we see Europeans against Americans, where almost every European government is pushed against Trump because of the Muslim ban or other internal policies, then we may have the situation in Europe, where nobody wants to follow Trump and lift the sanctions. Hungary - maybe, Britain - we don't know. I think Theresa May made a pretty clear case, where she stood on Russia. This would also bring new solidarity to Europe.

On the other hand, if it's not so clear-cut, if the situation is not so obvious, Europeans against Americans... And if the Trump administration starts to learn the game, they could easily play divide and rule in Europe.

Is the future of Ukraine that Russia really controls the country the way it wants or shouldn't we continue work along the lines of Minsk II? Carl Bildt recently repeated that this is the only game in town. It is Sigmar Gabriel who is moving to the Foreign Office replacing Frank Walter Steinmeier. There's no change. Gabriel is a professional. Now the big question is will Trump align with Putin. And it is also changing the debate. Because who wants to follow Trump? Who wants to see him as a leader on the new Russia policy? For the European left, it is almost impossible. I think we see a rather hardening position in Europe. I don't see any new idea that we need to compromise and that there is a middle way. The whole idea of compromise has been seen as something that is not going to work with the Russian president. You need to show strength and unity. And if you have that, you can achieve something.