Americas: United States
At NATO summit, Trump distances himself from traditional Western allies; during meeting with Putin, Trump signal re-alignment of conventional international order
Mid-July 2018 was marked by the meeting of the North Atlantic security alliance. The 2018 Summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was held in Brussels, Belgium fom July 11-12, 2018 with heads of state from member countries present.
The existence of NATO, in part, has been to provide assurances to Western countries that they would stand in solidarity against post-Cold War aggression from Russia. But rather than coming together to confront the threats posed by Russian influence, the summit was characterized by fractures in traditional alliance.
Of significance was the fact that United States President Donald Trump expended significant time at the summit in Brussels blaming other NATO countries for how spending enough on their own defense. Trump cast aspersions on other NATO countries for being "delinquent," suggesting they owed the United States money. To this end, Trump said, "Many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money."
In fact, Trump's characterization of certain NATO countries being financially delinquent was not accurate. NATO was not akin to an elite internaitonal club where members were expected to pay their dues. Instead, according to NATO’s 2014 collective agreement, member countries are compelled to spend two percent of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024.
At the time of the 2018 NATO summit, five countries had reached that threshold: the United States, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Latvia, and Greece. But the other countries were hardly delinquent, having several years left to reach the two percent target and with most countries moving in the right direction. Moreover, as noted by Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council for Global Affairs and the former United States ambassador to NATO under former President Barack Obama. "No one owes us any money. Nor is the U.S. spending more because allies are spending less. Our defense spending is a national decision and is determined by our national security and defense needs."
Nevertheless, Trump's complaints about NATO countries not spending enough on defense caused NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to call for an emergency session, with the aim of mediating the rift between Trump and the other countries in the security alliance. In the aftermath of that session, Trump declared that he had persuaded other countries to step up their defense spending by being forceful on the issue. However, other leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, disputed this claim.
The undermining of NATO aside, Trump alienated key allies by insulting German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May, and also describing the European Union as a "foe."
Trump specifically maligned Germany for getting natural gas from Russia, saying during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, "Germany is a captive of Russia...I think it's something that NATO has to look at. Germany is totally controlled by Russia." For her part, Merkel struck back, declaring: "I wanted to say that, because of current events, I have witnessed this myself, that a part of Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union. And I am very happy that we are today unified in freedom as the Federal Republic of Germany."
In an interview with the British tabloid newspaper, The Sun, Trump criticized United Kingdom Prime Minister May for her "soft Brexit" business-friendly plan. He said, “Well, I think the deal that she is striking is not what the people voted on." Trump also appeared to show a preference for the former British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who resigned in response to May's "soft Brexit" plan, saying of Johnson, “Well, I am not pitting one against the other. I’m just saying I think he would be a great prime minister. I think he’s got what it takes and I think he’s got the right attitude to be a great prime minister.”
Meanwhile, in an interview with CBS Evening News, Trump named the European Union, a regional bloc that has included some of the United States'oldest and closest allies -- as one of the United States' adversaries. When asked to identify his "biggest foe globally right now," Trump repled, "Well, I think we have a lot of foes. I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. Now, you wouldn't think of the European Union, but they're a foe."
In the aftermath of the fractious NATO summit came the meeting of United States President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland's capital city of Helsinki.
There, Trump raised eyebrows by praising Putin as a potential partner and again dismissing United States' own intelligence about Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election.
In a news conference with Putin, Trump promised to build an “extraordinary relationship” with Russia. That vow came even as the Trump administration opened a grievance at the World Trade Organization against key NATO allies, claiming they were engaging in unfair trading practices against the United States.
Left unsaid by Trump was the matter of Russia's annexation of Crimea, the news regarding Russia's role in poisoning British civilians during a chemical weapons attack, or the legal retaliatory moves by the American authorities against Russian operatives for interfering in the 2016 United States presidential election.
Throughout, Trump has fiercely asserted that he engaged in “no collusion” with Putin’s attack on the 2016 election and he has suggested that the investigation into his campaign's associations with Russians was a “witch hunt.” Even after being briefed by United States intelligence that Russia was behind the cyber-attack operation against the Clinton campaign, Trump repeatedly said that there was no reason to view Russia as the culprit. Indeed, Trump has preferred to blame the United States intelligence community, and take Putin's denials at face value. But in Helsinki, Trump became an active defender of Russia.
United States President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin stood next to each other at a news conference in Helsinki, Finland on July 16th, 2018 where the American president stunningly did not declare any instance where the Russian government should be held accountable.
Instead, President Trump spared his criticism for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 United States presidential election, calling it a “disaster” and “ridiculous," as well as decrying it as a “witch hunt.”
Trump also went further and cast doubts on the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies that determined Russia meddled in the 2016 election. “My people came to me, Dan Coates, came to me and some others they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be.”
During questioning by reporters, President Putin candidly stated that he did want Donald Trump to win the 2016 election because he thought Donald Trump as President would “[bring] the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal.”
The most stunning moment of the summit though was when President Trump blamed both his own country, the United States, and Russia for declining relations between the two countries. “I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we've all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago, a long time frankly before I got to office. And I think we're all to blame.”
Trump also reaffirmed his claim that there “was no collusion” between his presidential campaign and the Russian government in 2016. President Putin reaffirmed his claim that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 presidential election in the United States.
The Helsinki summit drew swift and vehement criticism from Democrats demanding action and Republicans disappointed in President Trump’s conduct in regard to President Putin.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, boldly stated on Twitter that the summit and President Trump’s acquiescence to President Putin was because “President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, tweeted “This is a sad day for America, and for all Western democracies that Putin continues to target.”
Former CIA Director John O. Brennan of President Obama’s administration went even further on Twitter and called President Trump’s conduct “treasonous” and declared it to be grounds for impeachment. “Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???”
Republican leaders were mostly silent, but a handful were very critical of the Helsinki summit. Republican Senator Jeff Flake tweeted: “I never thought I would see the day when our American president would stand on the stage with the Russian president and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful.” Flake’s counterpart, Senator John McCain, went even further in a statement: “Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.” The Republican House Speaker, Paul Ryan, offered more tepid criticism: “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally.”
On the same day, President Putin was interviewed on Fox News by Chris Wallace. In that interview, Putin reaffirmed his denial of his government’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election, but he also audaciously asserted the issue was immaterial because he viewed the veracity of the emails stolen from Democratic officials as paramount. He stated: “Every single grain of it is true. And the Democratic leadership admitted it.”
In another shocking turn of events the following day, President Trump claimed he misspoke during the Helsinki summit when he originally said “I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be [Russia].” The President said “The sentence should have been ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,’ sort of a double negative.”
Members of the press were very skeptical of this explanation. CNN’s Jim Sciutto tweeted: "The would-wouldn't defense is preposterous. Trump undermined IC's Russia assessment multiple times yesterday, citing Putin's "strong" denial, raising DNC server conspiracy theory. In fact, he has expressed same doubts for >2yrs. A missing contraction is a grammatical red herring.” Nancy Pelosi weighed in and tweeted: “Nice try. But seriously, no one believes you.” Chuck Schumer likewise tweeted: “President Trump tried to squirm away from what he said yesterday. It’s twenty-four hours too late, and in the wrong place.”
At the end of the proverbial day, Trump's embrace of Putin and Russia stood in clear contrast to the manner in which he both confronted and alienated key Western European allies, thus sparking questions about a new realignment of the international order.
At issue has been the prevaling balance of power between the West on one end and Russia and China on the other end. For Russia, a key goal has been the reconstitution of its influence and power in former Soviet territories. Cross-cutting this dynamic have been emerging powers such as India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, all seeking their own imprint in their respective geopolitical orbit. At the heart of the matter though, is the reality that both Trump in the United States and Putin in Russia seek to upend the current status quo. It was to be seen if this goal would be successful.
Denise Youngblood Coleman, PhD.
President and Editor in Chief
-- July 17, 2018