International platform for disarmament and non-proliferation dialogue, research and education

U.S.-European Security Relations under the New Administration

On 7 June 2017, the International Institute for Peace (IIP), in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and the VCDNP, hosted a panel discussion on “U.S.‑European Security Relations under the New Administration.”

Hannes Swoboda, President of the IIP

After welcoming the audience, Hannes Swoboda, President of the IIP, opened the discussion with a reference to existing tensions between the United States and Europe, and a call to the States to overcome the tensions and agree at least on some common policies.

In the opening remarks, VCDNP Executive Director Laura Rockwood highlighted how much had changed just over the course of the past year, referring to the results of the US presidential elections and the President’s unwillingness to reaffirm the mutual defence provision of the NATO Treaty; the outcome of the British referendum on BREXIT; and the recent statement by the German Chancellor calling into question European reliance on others for its defence. The international community was left with more uncertainty than certainty, more questions than answers. With all options on the table, could Europe take advantage of this situation to flex its muscles?

This open-ended question was then addressed by the moderator, Markus Kornprobst of the Diplomatic Academy, to the three panellists:

  • Ambassador Steven Pifer, Director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and former US Ambassador to Ukraine;
  • Angela Kane, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs and VCDNP Senior Fellow;
  • Heinz Gärtner, Professor of Political Science at the University of Vienna.
Panellists (from left to right): Laura Rockwood, Angela Kane, Heinz Gärtner, Markus Kornprobst and Steven Pifer

Ambassador Pifer saw no interest on the part of Europe to “flex its muscles.” On the contrary, he believed that European countries were being passive: their silence regarding accusations of violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was deafening. This behaviour could only lead Washington and Moscow to think that European countries did not care about the INF, which, in his view, was already heading towards its demise. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) might suffer a similar fate as it was not very likely, according to Ambassador Pifer, that the Trump administration would want to extend it. Put simply, he was not optimistic about the possibility that the US government would use arms control as a vehicle to improve relations with Russia. Ultimately, however, most of these decisions would be determined by the results of the ongoing Nuclear Posture Review.

Angela Kane tackled the moderator’s question from a European perspective. She referred to the speech delivered at the 2017 Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference by Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. On that occasion, Ms. Mogherini stated that the EU did not need to re-assess its Global Strategy in light of the Trump election; the EU would continue to stand for adherence to a rules-based order. This normative approach to foreign policy, according to Ms. Kane, set the EU apart from the President Trump’s “America first” philosophy, which was not based on the importance of cooperation and multilateralism. According to Ms. Kane, we might soon experience a “seismic shift” in transatlantic relations which would require courage to repair. The weakening of transatlantic ties might lead others to take advantage of the situation in a way that could worsen global security even more.

Professor Gärtner focused his attention on the role of Austria in Europe. Referring to the negotiations taking place in New York on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, he explained the historical reasons why the Austrian government was “tailor‑made” to sponsor this initiative. During the Cold War, Austrian neutrality came to be seen as a model. This special status led to the establishment in Vienna of several international organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency. It should come as no surprise, he felt, that this city was the only place that the negotiating parties of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action could agree on to conclude their discussions. The Austrian government proudly embraced its Cold War legacy by re‑vitalizing ideas like the Rapacki plan, which called for a demilitarization of Central Europe, by commissioning, with the Swiss government, a study on the problems and challenges of establishing a nuclear-weapon‑free zone in Europe. Mr. Gärtner concluded his historical analysis by highlighting that President Trump’s rationale for “disentangling” the United States from Europe reflected a tendency in American foreign policy that could be traced back to the foundation of the country itself.

The floor was then opened to questions and answers from the audience. A wide range of topics were raised, allowing the panellists to discuss not only transatlantic but global challenges. For example, the threat posed by North Korea was seen by the audience and the panellists as the most pressing issue on the global agenda. It was highlighted during the debate that this crisis could present an opportunity for collaboration between the United States, China and Russia. On that note, it was stressed that the current transatlantic crisis could reverberate in the Far East: if President Trump was not willing to endorse NATO’s mutual assistance clause. What message was he sending to his allies outside of Europe? This behaviour might even lead some States to reconsider their commitment to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The conversation then shifted to US-Russia relations. Allegations about Russian interference in the US elections were perceived as a grey cloud over bilateral relations: concessions or even attempts to establish a dialogue could be perceived as a pay-off for an obscure deal. The US administration had somehow boxed itself into a position which did not allow for much hope for arms control or even disarmament negotiations. President Trump’s decision not to explicitly support Article V of the NATO Treaty could lead Russia to miscalculate, believing that the United States will not respond its actions. This dangerous spiral led to the conclusion that nuclear weapons simply could not be managed. Knowing that a failure in deterrence would have an unimaginable humanitarian impact was, indeed, the driving force of the ban movement.

The moderator concluded the discussion by emphasizing that, in changing times, there can be opportunities in new beginnings: when leaders seem incapable to achieve progress, we can still have faith in the work of competent diplomats and international bureaucrats.