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Trump ally has tough love for Europe

“I think the transatlantic relationship is really important, and I think Russia is a very serious threat,” said Elbridge Colby, a former senior Pentagon official who’s now being tipped for a major national security role — if former U.S. President Donald Trump is reelected in November.

“I think it’s not as much of a threat as China, or as much of a threat as the Soviet Union was in 1953. But if Putin isn’t checked, he will have the incentive to push farther,” Colby told POLITICO.

With recent opinion polls showing Trump ahead of President Joe Biden in key swing states, the U.S. presidential race is increasingly preoccupying European policymakers, with leaders wringing their hands and talking of Trump-proofing the Continent.

In this regard, Colby underscoring NATO’s significance will undoubtedly help soothe the nerves of those trying to figure out what a second Trump term would mean, and whether the transatlantic relationship will be as roiled and turbulent as the last time around, when Trump threatened to withdraw from the alliance that’s been the bedrock of European security since 1949.

But they’ll need to read the fine print. Because, as Colby’s made clear before, he has tough love for Europe.

The grandson of William Colby, head of the CIA under the administrations of U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Colby’s a long-standing China hawk who served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense in the first Trump administration. Now among the most bandied-about names for top foreign policy jobs in a second Trump term, his stressing of the transatlantic relationship will go some way in calming European allies— even though he opposed Biden’s long-stalled aid package for Ukraine.

Elbridge Colby, a former senior Pentagon official, says China’s the number one threat the U.S. has to focus on. | Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Colby makes clear the transatlantic relationship will only be healthy if Europe pulls its weight, takes on a greater defense burden, stops just “staging photo ops promising in the future that they’re going to spend more,” and gets on with “fielding credible combat forces that can assume the primary burden of the conventional defense of Europe against the Russians.”

He also advocates prodding the Continent to do so. “For countries meeting their defense obligations — and not in terms of accounting trickery but with real forces — those countries should get treated best by the America,” he told POLITICO. And, on the topic of imposing tariffs on exports to the U.S. from recalcitrant allies, he explained: “We should look in an integrated way at our alliances and partnerships. And we should be prepared to use carrots and sticks to incentivize the right kind of behavior from our point of view.”

Colby stresses he doesn’t speak for Trump or his presidential campaign. But as far as he sees it, China’s the number one threat the U.S. has to focus on. And in order to do that, there has to be a global division of labor, with Europe stepping up and helping a lot more, so Washington can prioritize China.

“We think we’re far more powerful and capable than we actually are. And that’s not a hair-shirt comment. It’s a simple fact. When I say we, I mean the established leadership class — President Biden but also many Republicans of the old school — who think we can do anything. But have you looked at the size of the Chinese economy? Have you looked at the size of the Chinese industrial base? Have you looked at the state of our own industrial base, and particularly our defense-industrial base? Have you looked at the readiness of our armed forces? Have you looked at the growth of their armed forces?” he asked.

“In the past quarter of a century, we’ve gone through an unprecedented financial crisis, deindustrialization, several wars in the Middle East which didn’t end well and certainly [weren’t] worth the cost. China went from being a blip on the horizon to where there’s a real chance we could lose a war against it,” he remarked.

Colby’s heartened by signs of greater European seriousness, though he’s not yet convinced that action will match rhetoric. He also says NATO’s European members should “absolutely” be spending more like 3 to 4 percent of their GDP on defense — as most of them did during the Cold War. “That’s entirely realistic,” he added.

“Germany alone is a larger economy than Russia’s, let alone NATO as a whole,” he said, noting that Europe has wanted to hang on to the peace dividend afforded by the end of the Cold War for too long. “The one thing I really do object to is when the Germans in particular, with all their history, try to make out they can’t militarize for historical reasons. But when their necks were on the line during the Cold War, they militarized plenty fast,” he said. He also dismissed British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s recent pledge to increase defense spending in the future, as he’s not likely to be in power to have to fulfill it.

Talking to POLITICO, Colby did approve of parts of French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent marathon address at the Sorbonne though, praising him for calling on Europe to be more self-reliant, take on more responsibility, and improve military preparedness. But he’s scornful of the French leader’s talk of strategic autonomy and of Europe being an independent player in the great power conflict between the U.S. and China.

“That’s self-defeating because you can’t have a vigorous Europe without at least the support of the United States, and if Europe is going to be some kind of third pole, then why would we help you become that?” he asked. “Anyway, Macron’s been so inconsistent over the years. Before, he was saying we should reach out to Moscow, and now he’s talking about putting French troops in Ukraine. Which is it? I’m like, holy cow.”

Plus, Colby’s increasingly far more intrigued by Europe’s hawkish center-left politicians — among them Britain’s David Lammy, the opposition Labour Party’s lead on foreign affairs, and Germany’s Minister of Defense Boris Pistorius. “The foreign policy I’m advocating could be compatible with a lot of center-left governments in allied countries; it’s about pragmatic alignment of interests, not ideology,” he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s address at the Sorbonne called on Europe to be more self-reliant. | Pool photo by Christophe Petit via AFP/Getty Images

Along these lines, talking to POLITICO’s Anne McElvoy earlier this month, Colby lashed out at British foreign minister David Cameron for “moralizing” and “lecturing” U.S. politicians about Ukraine, and he went out of his way to praise Lammy, saying: “Based on what I can see, David Lammy is far preferable to David Cameron.”

Interestingly, there’s a familial echo in all this. In the 1950s, Colby’s grandfather was an advocate for engaging non-Communist left-wing parties to shape non-Communist coalitions. And his advocacy infuriated James Jesus Angleton, the chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence department at the time, setting off a bureaucratic brawl.

Similarly, Colby is no stranger to ideological dustups and Washington battles himself. Both the U.S. Central Command and the Joint Staff vehemently opposed the National Security Strategy he helped draw up for the Trump administration, which reoriented defense resources to Asia and away from the Middle East. Neoconservatives have also taken issue with his thinking, blocking him from a role in Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential bid.

However, Colby’s relentless focus on China not only fits in with Trump’s thinking, it has also swayed many in the Republican Party. He dismisses the idea that he’s a quasi-isolationist, arguing he’s a realist about what’s possible and what’s in America’s best interest. He also laughs at all the hand-wringing about Trump’s supposedly transactional approach to foreign policy.

“American foreign policy, I think, should be in the interest of the American people. For some, a cost-benefit approach to foreign policy is a controversial idea. I mean, foreign policy isn’t, as President Biden’s saying, sacred. It’s supposed to deliver results. Idealism detached from cost-benefit isn’t moral. We should have results. If you look at foreign policy that way, we’re not doing so well right now,” he said.

Source: Politico