Some U.S. allies are increasingly uneasy about the future of joint intelligence endeavors with Washington as they try to figure out just how much President Donald Trump plans to shake up the existing order.
The concerns are still in the early stages, with most of those willing to share their thoughts expressing a willingness to give the Trump administration more time to get people in place at the various agencies and departments.
But many also admit that the ongoing lack of communication combined with what, at times, appears to be contradictory messages from the White House, key departments and even from President Trump himself, is starting to strain ongoing efforts.
“It’s hard to know for sure,” one Western diplomatic official told VOA on condition of anonymity, when asked about the future of intelligence cooperation with the U.S.
“So much of the administration is not in place,” the official said, cautioning that despite the many remaining vacancies there is already a sense Trump prefers some allies to others.
Perhaps no set of issues has been more emblematic of the dilemmas facing officials from Washington’s European allies as the Trump administration’s approach to Russia and the NATO alliance.
Starting on the campaign trail, Trump continually talked about his respect for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a view he has clung to even since taking office.
“I do respect him,” Trump told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly in an interview that aired this past Sunday. “He’s a leader of his country. I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not.”
At the same time, Trump has criticized NATO repeatedly, calling it “obsolete.”
And despite voicing voiced “strong support for NATO” in a phone call Sunday with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Western officials say they are left to wonder how far that support truly goes, given other statements the president has made.
During a visit to U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, Monday, for example, Trump repeated criticism of NATO members who have not been making “their full and proper financial contributions.”
“Many of them have not been even close,” Trump said. “And they have to do that.”
“These alliances have been a little too much of a one way street, which is not to say that the alliances have no value,” said Kevin Harrington, deputy assistant to the president for strategic planning at the National Security Council, at a forum Monday in Washington.
“It was time for the United States to look harder at a fairer burden sharing on certain fronts,” he said of the president’s message during the campaign. “This is not being anti-alliance to do that. I think it’s simply a question of fairer distribution of burdens.”
“It’s a wonderful area of opportunity,” according to NSC Senior Director for Strategic Assessments Victoria Coates who spoke at the same event regarding the chance to work on Washington’s relationships.
But it has been the U.S. president’s apparent willingness to work with Russia that has some Western officials most unnerved.
“It’s a key concern,” said the Western diplomatic official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Russia has been a very disruptive player.”
Officials worry Moscow’s disruptions of upcoming elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands will only increase.
The fear, the officials say, is Russia will interfere in those elections in much the same way American intelligence officials said it interfered with the recent U.S. presidential election.
“What you’re going to see, I’m sure, is a campaign of fake news,” the diplomatic official said, warning a softer approach to Russia’s activities is only likely to backfire on the West.
“If the most important of these allies, the U.S., decides to forgive, it will be very difficult,” the official said.
While Trump’s aides have done little to ease creeping anxiety for some U.S. allies, there have been some hints of pragmatism.
“If we’ve learned anything from the last eight years it’s that sort of cuddling up to your opponents and punishing your allies is not a good recipe for a peaceful, stable world,” said the NSC’s Coates. “We have terrific friends who are willing to help us and if we ask them to do so in a purposeful way, that there’s a plan behind it, I actually think we have a great deal of upside.”
Western officials hope that thinking ultimately wins out.
“We have something to offer,” noted Dutch Ambassador to the U.S.Henne Schuwer, who has been watching developments closely.
The Netherlands has been working with various U.S. agencies to improve security across Europe and to establish a European Union intelligence community in order to better share vital information and combat threats.
“We have a very good relation with the intelligence community [in the U.S.],” Schuwer said. “That will not be broken easily.”
Meetings this week with key European Union officials may also go a long way in easing potential anxieties.
Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos sounded an optimistic tone, calling his talks Wednesday with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, “fruitful and friendly.”
“The security threats faced by the United States and the European Union are common and so should be our response,” Avramopoulos said in a statement.
Kelly, for his part, emphasized Washington’s “deep commitment to help the EU fight the terrorist threat” according to a readout from his office.
Yet for every step forward, Western officials say it is difficult to move past nagging doubts caused by tweets, comments or even the administration’s executive order pausing immigration from seven Muslim majority countries.
One Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the order caused several days of uncertainty as Western countries struggled to get answers on how it impacted their citizens and what they were supposed to do.
For now, many Western officials seem willing to give the Trump administration more time to get its footing. Still they worry, waiting, as one official put it, for a firm signal to indicate what sort of course the U.S. leadership will ultimately take.