Following Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States of America on Friday 20th January came an incredible, shocking and turbulent first fortnight in office as policy and power jolted from the Obama Administration to Trump.
Trump was quick to sign executive orders for – amongst other significant policy changes – a 90-day temporary ban on nationals from 7 Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States and the beginning of the Republican repeal of Obamacare – a key component of Barack Obama’s presidential legacy. Trump is also expected to begin the process of US withdrawal from the global 2016 Paris Climate Agreement within the next few weeks.
Following the passage of Trump’s ban on asylum from 7 Muslim-majority countries including Sudan, Iraq and Libya amongst others, widespread confusion and panic rippled through airports around the world as the Executive Order was hastily enforced, with even Green Card holders being forcibly removed from flights or told that their airline tickets were no longer valid.
Trump’s Muslim ban sparked thousands to protest, initially at JFK (New York) with protests quickly spreading further around the world, many of which are still going on around US and European cities today. The ban on green card holders was eventually lifted after a few days of continued outcry from protesters and the Democratic establishment, but the 90-day temporary ban on the 7 Muslim-majority countries still remains in force, with hints from Washington circles that it may become a permanent fixture of Trump’s first term.
The future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and America’s role as the world’s policeman also remains unclear as Trump set out America First domestic and foreign policies as part of his inaugural address in Washington DC. Such moves are expected to shrink the American global footprint as isolationism and protectionism become key tenets of the Trump White House.
Following a Washington press conference and meeting between the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May and Donald Trump just 7 days into his Presidency, it was established that Trump was firmly behind the continued work of NATO, by way of a comment on the matter from May at the conference. Concerns continue to grow on the continent however, as Trump couples a seeming blasé and frequently changeable approach to NATO alongside a widely anticipated change in foreign policy by means of a reset of US-Russian relations.
Were the powerful Obama-enforced Russian sanctions to be lifted – brought into being following the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, further geopolitical shockwaves would ripple through an already-reeling US and Europe. Trump faces serious opposition and a raft of stern warnings from key Republican figures, such as Senator John McCain and Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, that lifting Russian sanctions would lead to grave consequences, placing the US in completely uncharted geopolitical territory were Trump to follow through with his plans.
For many in Europe, Trump’s initial dismissal of the NATO marks the beginning of a newly unsettled period for the old world order, prompting even Merkel to warn that Europe must be able to fight for itself now and in the future, as the current world order becomes more unstable and volatile. NATO was founded in 1949 to counter the growth of the USSR and has been the very cornerstone of European-US military cooperation and strategic operation ever since. As America begins to turn inward, a power vacuum in Europe could be filled by an increasingly powerful Russia by means of misinformation dissemination, growing cyber-warfare and land grabs – like what was seen with the forceful annexation of Crimea in 2014.
In a recent poll by the Copenhagen Post, the Danish Defense Intelligence Service (DDIS) – equivalent of the UK’s MI6 – in its annual prediction of threats in the year ahead, selected Russia and the increasing trends of cyber-attacks and lone-wolf terrorism to be the most severe. Weary of a military buildup in Western parts of Russia and Russian naval warships entering the Baltic Sea, the DDIS also notes a growing threat of cyber-espionage against branches of the Danish government and companies based in Denmark.
In Sweden there are similar concerns as to Russian interference with diplomacy through cyber-attacks, but also the growth of ‘hybrid warfare’; highly advanced cyber espionage attacks that include disinformation and destabilization of opponents through part-secret, part-public operations. Sweden’s Defense Committee Chairman, Allan Widman predicts the continued growth of hybrid warfare since its arrival into defense and intelligence circles back in 2007 alongside the exponential growth of Facebook and social media-driven news.
Weariness of Russian interference and disinformation campaigns conducted via hybrid warfare has been growing within Sweden since the Ukraine crisis and subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. Such disinformation includes several key incidents including fake governmental letters, articles on the failures of NATO and of the EU’s handling of the migrant crisis by a Swedish-language version of the Russian state-funded media outlet Sputnik, since closed down by Western authorities.
Early in 2016, Säpo – the Swedish Security Service – announced Russia to be the biggest intelligence and security threat facing Sweden and it is clear that this sentiment is growing ever stronger. It’s clear enough to draw parallels between Sweden’s surprising election as a Non-Permanent Member of the UN Security Council in 2016 and the growing intelligence and security tensions and increasing hybrid warfare faced by the country from foreign state actors and those unhappy with the increasing power that European countries hold within the Security Council.
Combining these concerns with a recent poll by the Swedish broadsheet, Dagens Nyheter, showing that two thirds of Swedes do not believe that Sweden can effectively protect its borders, makes for a rocky and fragile 2017 for the region. Director of NATO strategic communications bureau, Janis Sarts, warned that Russian hybrid warfare, if left unchallenged, could lead to political paralysis in Sweden as government and intelligence services struggle to navigate the way forward.
Were Sweden to be threatened and subdued in this manner, its political and military strength could be negated if Russia makes repeated political and military moves with the intent to destabilise Scandinavia and the Baltics further. If hybrid warfare targeting Scandinavian nations continues to grow in sphere and scope, the coming years could be seismic for the survival of the European project, but also the safety of countries within the Russian sphere of influence over the coming months and years.
Planning for the future depends on the answers to a raft of questions ranging from how Trump’s feelings towards protecting NATO might wax or wane alongside the potential warming of US-Russian relations set against a backdrop of the UK’s exit from the EU and the implications these events will have on the collective strength and continued deepening of ties across Europe.
With both German and French elections coming up this year, EU leadership could change drastically if Marine Le Pen of the conservative National Front party secures the French presidency and if Merkel’s strength in Germany shrinks with the upcoming election results. If the leadership were to change in France and Germany, the policy and political direction of Europe may veer into new, isolationist and nationalist territories.
Many geopolitical and security questions remain unanswered moving forward in 2017, and all eyes will be on Trump, Merkel, Putin not to mention the rise of the parties of National Front in France, UKIP in Britain and the right-wing, populist Alternativ für Deutschland party in Germany, as the future direction of Europe is decided definitively in the months ahead.