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Chance of Trump following through with campaign promises keeps Europe guessing

Michael Fallon, U.K. defense secretary, arrives to attend the weekly cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016.

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

British Secretary of Defence Michael Fallon scans the oversized maps that lean against his office wall, examining portraits of a world on fire.

Atop the pile is a closeup of the city of Aleppo, and Mr. Fallon uses his finger to trace the shrinking part of the city that is controlled by anti-regime rebels. The fighters, some of them Western-backed, are surrounded on the ground by President Bashar al-Assad's forces while the enclave is pummelled from the air by Russian warplanes.

The map doesn't show it yet, but the balance of power in Aleppo may be about to take a dramatic shift. Donald Trump, the president-elect of the United States, has indicated that he plans to end U.S. support for the anti-Assad rebels, and to instead co-operate with Russia in fighting the Islamic State.

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Geopolitical changes are expected in Europe, too. Countries such as Ukraine, Estonia and Latvia – all former Soviet republics frightened by the revanchist mood in Moscow – are deeply concerned about the burgeoning friendship between Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as Mr. Trump's campaign-trail description of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as "obsolete."

"Difficult times," Mr. Fallon says as he turns away from the maps. "But we have to remain calm."

The Defence Secretary, who will deliver a keynote speech at the Halifax International Security Forum that opens on Friday, says he expects a significant gap between Mr. Trump's rhetoric to date and what the president-elect will actually do once in office. The message from London is: Give the new guy some time.

"Things are said during campaigns that turn out to be more nuanced or more moderated in administration," Mr. Fallon says in an interview with The Globe and Mail at the British Ministry of Defence headquarters on the north bank of the River Thames.

"Donald Trump isn't the president yet. He's said things on the campaign trail. What matters is the policy his administration takes up in January. And we're obviously talking to a number of people who might be part of that new administration."

Mr. Fallon intends to use the Halifax conference – which will be attended by numerous U.S. senators and congressmen – to further that conversation about the intentions of the incoming administration. He will be lobbying hard for the next White House to keep NATO as the central pillar of Western defence strategy.

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One point Mr. Fallon agrees with Mr. Trump on is the president-elect's call for NATO members to pay for more of their own defence. U.S. military spending is more than double the total amount of the other 27 members, and just five countries (including Britain) meet the alliance's target of spending 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence.

Despite pledging at successive NATO summits in Wales and Poland to contribute more, Canada's defence spending remains about half that standard. "What we do need to do is steadily take forward the commitments from Wales and Warsaw," Mr. Fallon says. But he rejected Mr. Trump's suggestion that NATO is past its use-by date, pointing to how the alliance has built up its forces and capabilities in Eastern Europe as tensions with Russia have soared over the crisis in Ukraine.

"I'm very pleased that NATO is responding; 2014 was a wake-up call – the annexation of the Crimea – and you [now] have British troops, which were withdrawn from Germany over the past few years, going back into Estonia and Poland [and] a Canadian battalion going next door in Latvia," he says. "We can demonstrate to the incoming Trump administration that, in Europe, NATO is waking up to shouldering more of the burden of defence."

But Mr. Fallon's interpretation of the West's security interests appears to clash with Mr. Trump's. The president-elect has said he wants to have "a good relationship" with Mr. Putin, and suggested that his administration could recognize Russia's takeover of Crimea, and lower U.S. sanctions against Moscow.

The gap appears to be just as wide on Syria, where Britain is ramping up its training of anti-Assad rebels just as Mr. Trump is musing about cutting U.S. links to them, and linking arms instead with Russia to focus on defeating the Islamic State.

"These two things are connected. We have to stop the civil war [in Syria] and we have to tackle the terrorism," Mr. Fallon says. "Prolonging the civil war gets in the way of that, and that's why we continue to urge Russia to quit it, to butt out. But Russia's doing the opposite. Russia's now bombing civilians and blocking humanitarian aid, which is disgraceful."

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After a two-week pause, Russian air strikes on eastern Aleppo began anew on Tuesday. The new assault began just hours after Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin held their first phone call since the U.S. elections.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More


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