Estonia 23-29 January 2017

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Commenting on Donald Trump’s inaugural address, pro-Kremlin news site claims the speech suggests that under his presidency, the “anti-Russian buffer zone” in Europe—previously a pillar of U.S. foreign policy—is no longer needed.

Event: A 23 January article on President Donald Trump’s inaugural address posted by the pro-Kremlin, Russian-language news site states that an anti-Russian buffer zone is no longer needed, and that Trump will no longer take care of the Baltic states and other U.S. allies in Europe.

The false fact or narrative: Three false narratives are at work here: first, that previous U.S. presidents maintained an anti-Russian buffer zone; second, the implication that the concept of “buffer zones” or “spheres of influence” is a part of U.S. foreign policy; and third, that since the anti-Russian buffer zone is no longer needed, the Baltic states will be abandoned.

Reality on the ground: Trump did not mention anything about an “anti-Russian buffer zone” in his inaugural speech. Moreover, claims by pro-Kremlin media that the address indicated the previous existence of such a buffer zone in Washington’s calculations are groundless. On the contrary, the United States has been including Russia in its pursuit of a multipolar world for more than 70 years. The idea of a United Nations began in 1939 under the aegis of the U.S. State Department. Washington also was a key player in the establishment of the UN Security Council—one of the six principal organs of the United Nations—which gives veto power to five countries, including Russia.

The North Atlantic Treaty came into being in 1949 as an organization based on consensus among all its signatories, large and small. Any country can block any other in the alliance. By contrast, decisions of the Warsaw Pact—created in 1955 as a counterweight to NATO—were dominated by the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has supported Russia’s accession of Russia into several multilateral fora including the NATO-Russia Council, G8 and the WTO.

In addition, U.S. cooperation with other NATO states is not based on the idea of a “buffer zone” or a “sphere of influence” but on the North Atlantic Treaty, which states as follows: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” It also requires that each member state should “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”

NATO members renewed this requirement at their 2014 Wales Summit, A declaration issued at that summit stated that “allies currently meeting the NATO guideline to spend a minimum of 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product on defense will aim to continue to do so. Allies whose current proportion of GDP spent on defense is below this level will halt any decline in defense expenditure; aim to increase defense expenditure in real terms as GDP grows; aim to move towards the 2 percent guideline within a decade with a view to meeting their NATO Capability Targets and filling NATO’s capability shortfalls.”

Trump has previously urged NATO member states to meet the required threshold of 2 percent of GDP. According to NATO’s communique Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries (2009-2016), Estonia now spends 2 percent of its GDP on defense spending (and in its state budget of 2017, it will reach an all-time high of nearly 2.2 percent). Even though Latvia and Lithuania haven’t yet reached the 2 percent requirement, the same document shows that both countries have dramatically increased their defense budgets since 2014 as agreed in Wales.

Techniques: False interpretation.

Audience: Russian speakers in the Baltic states and around the world

Analysis: The interpretation of Trump’s inaugural address says less about the speech and U.S. interest than about the Kremlin’s intentions. Restoring the Cold War era’s “buffer zones” or “spheres of influence” and making the concept internationally acceptable has been one of the Kremlin’s intentions for many years. Nevertheless, in a liberal democracy, this concept is questionable; it indicates that not every country has the right to define itself and its goals, but accepting that its future may be defined by agreements made by other, bigger or more powerful countries.

In political philosophy, this dichotomy between the rule of law and the rule of power is illustrated by the dichotomy between John Locke’s idea of a social contract between citizens and governments, i.e., a contract based on commonly acceptable law and/or an agreement made by political equals—for example the North Atlantic Treaty, and Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all,” i.e., agreements made by more powerful parties over all others (for example, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact). One of these concepts has a future; the other does not. Which one prevails depends on future U.S. decisions and how European countries will react.