Every U.S. president for the past quarter-century has thought he could improve relations with Russia.
Two factors have been consistent in those efforts: Their utter failures and, more recently, the powerful presence of ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin, now president again.
Despite a range of rather rigorous economic sanctions by Presidents Obama and Trump, the canny and ruthless Putin has:
- Seen a number of opponents, especially journalists, turn up dead.
- Engineered the successful annexation of Crimea and ongoing turmoil to foment instability in eastern Ukraine.
- Bolstered the once-crumbling Syrian dictatorship of Bashir al-Assad with troops, bombers and advisers to defeat rebels and gained Russia’s first warm-water port.
- Cemented a strong alliance and huge arms deals with Iran, which has an estimated 100,000 troops in Syria, fighting and undergoing Russian training.
- Is building a nuclear power plant in NATO ally Turkey and signed a major deal to sell sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons (incompatible with NATO allies) to its president, newly-reelected with enhanced powers.
Now comes Putin’s first formal summit meeting with President Trump next week in Finland. Until last year Trump had zero experience in government and diplomacy, which supporters saw as a plus.
That lack of experience has not affected the billionaire’s immense self-regard and confidence in crafting international deals.
To be fair, Trump has said some sensible things about improved relations with Russia being good for everyone. Although few derided past presidents’ ultimately naive dreams of working with Putin, Trump’s professed identical goal is sending visible willies through Democrats and European allies alike.
Part of this is Trump’s own fault. During the campaign he said, accurately, that U.S. foreign policy under Obama had become too predictable, predictably feckless, free of muscle and consequences for misbehavior.
Now, predictably, Trump is turning unpredictability into a political science at home and abroad. It keeps opponents, supporters, even his own staff off-balance – and fearful. It’s also fun apparently and, not coincidentally, it keeps attention focused on him, everything he says and tweets.
But military alliances — especially 69-year-old ones like NATO — are built on predictability: If you attack us, we will all attack you.
It’s worked a long time because an alliance is stronger together than separately. NATO’s Article 5, the mutual defense clause, has only been used once since 1949. Allies joined U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack.
As you may have noticed, the 45th U.S. president is not a nuanced man. Most things in his eyes are really, really good or really, really bad. One really bad thing he’s seized upon is the failure of many of NATO’s 29 members to meet their 2014 pledge of spending two percent of GDP on defense.
He told a Montana political rally the other night that at this week’s alliance meetings in Brussels, “I'm going to tell NATO, you got to start paying your bills. The United States is not going to take care of everything.”
Previous presidents have complained, but Trump makes it sound like the other countries are spending deadbeats. That is inaccurate and distorted.
Eight members will meet the two percent goal this year — the U.S., Britain, Greece, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Romania and Lithuania. Another eight are nearing the target.
But Trump neglects to mention that the two percent spending deadline isn’t until 2024. We aren’t even halfway there.
Why push it now with a nascent Russia nearby? One European leader called Trump’s behavior “capricious assertiveness.”
So, what ends up puzzling allies is why the American leader has called NATO obsolete and makes so much out of temporary spending deficiencies (and trade deficits) with friends, when he’s been far less critical of the real threat, an ambitiously aggressive Putin.
At last month’s Singapore Summit, Trump quickly agreed to suspend joint military maneuvers with South Korea, agreeing with Kim Jung-un they were “provocative.”
That happens to be the exact word Putin uses to describe NATO maneuvers in Europe. At their summit in Finland, will Trump abruptly pull the U.S. out of them as a goodwill gesture, as he abandoned the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord?
You may recall in 2009 Obama canceled a U.S. missile defense system in Poland as an unsolicited sop to buy Russian help curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Putin took the sop, did nothing on Iran.
Trump has written that a crucial element to successful bargaining is the willingness to walk away. His aides describe the Putin summit as merely a get-to-know you affair with a wide range of issues discussed.
Can Trump do merely that as a constructive start to building at least a civil relationship with Moscow? And then walk away? Or will he give up something to make it appear a really, really good summit?