Trump likes Putin, dislikes NATO. This could end in tears
It’s not often Donald Trump throws praise at someone else than himself. Yet the red carpet was laid out when Mikhail Gorbatchev showed up at the mogul’s tower in 1988, an unannounced stop on the Soviet leader’s historic trip to New York. “A great, great honour,” Trump greeted Gorbatchev, who complimented his host’s tie in return. But there was another surprise. As Trump later found out, the person visiting him that day was in fact Ronald Knapp – an impersonator also known as Gorby 2.
This episode, admittedly, is nearly 30 years old. Still, it foreshadowed two personality traits that continue to define Trump today: his enthusiasm for Russia and his penchant for foreign policy blunders.
The US presidential candidate has long spoken highly of Vladimir Putin. In 2007, he praised the leader for “rebuilding Russia”, adding a year later that he was doing his work “much better than our Bush”. Trump hasn’t changed views since: yesterday, he described Putin as “a better leader than Obama”; in terms of leadership, in fact, the leader is “getting an A”.
What Trump likes in the Russian president, says Thomas Frear, a research fellow at the European Leadership Network, is his decisiveness. “The Russian regime is able to make decisions and implement them much quicker than any democracy,” he told me this week. “That’s very much in contrast to some of Obama’s difficulties in getting budget through Congress, for example.”
Putin also likes Trump, whom he calls “bright and talented”. According to Philippe Moreau Defarges, a former diplomat and research fellow at the French Institute of International Relations, the duo’s fledging bromance is also a matter of self-recognition. “From the perspective of Trump, it’s about being lookalikes: ‘We’re both gangsters, and we’re not hiding it’”.
“Countries on the eastern flank of the Alliance are incredibly worried. The possibility that the potential US commander-in-chief wouldn’t honour America’s commitments is incredibly dangerous” - Thomas Frear
In recent days, it’s become clear that Trump’s affection for the Russian leader also extends to the country he governs. In the latest instalment of the email saga that's been tormenting Hillary Clinton for months, he recently called on Russian agents to hack his rival’s mailbox and publish whatever they may have stolen, effectively encouraging cyberespionage against a former secretary of state. Accused of treason even within his own party, he yesterday told Fox News he was being “sarcastic”.
Yet it’s hard to deny that Trump’s foreign policy ideas – assuming they exist – are leaning east. For example, he’s a fan of Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria: "What’s wrong with Russia bombing the hell out of ISIS and these other crazies so we don’t have to spend a million dollars a bomb?" He recently asked, ignoring Russia’s ostensible preference for plundering moderate rebels rather than jihadists.
There’s ample literature suggesting Trump’s pro-Kremlin views can be explained by his business ambitions in Moscow, his dependence on Russian cash, or both. These allegations are hard to prove. More grounded are observations that Trump’s inner circle is dominated by wonks sympathetic to Russia: Trump’s campaign manager, for instance, is credited for helping Kremlin favourite Viktor Yanukovych win Ukraine’s 2010 presidential elections.
Yet Trump’s advisers are filling a vacuum. They probably would have less influence should the real estate tycoon be more knowledgeable about world affairs: “He’s a businessman, not a man of culture,” observes Moreau Defarges, noting that the young Trump probably didn’t 'get an A' at geography.
Nothing makes this more obvious than the magnate’s understanding of NATO. Last week, when asked if the US would defend the Baltics if attacked by Russia, his answer made jaws drop across the foreign policy community. “If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.” And if not? “Well, I’m not saying if not,” Trump continued. “I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.”
By obligations, of course, he meant money. “Trump sees international relations as a form of permanent bargaining. And when you’re bargaining, what you’re trying to get is the best deal for yourself,” says Moreau Defarges.
That vision is clearly not compatible with NATO’s Article V, the provision calling for allies to come to the rescue of assaulted members.
“This has countries on the eastern flank of the alliance incredibly worried. From their perspective, the possibility that the potential commander-in-chief of the US wouldn’t honour America’s commitments is incredibly dangerous,” says Frear.
Trump’s scepticism towards NATO is consistent with his worldview: he often describes the Alliance has a poor investment for the US. For Frear, this analysis is flawed.
“Peace in Europe has been hugely beneficial to the US, and NATO has been a cornerstone of this. Europe is the world’s biggest single market and the US’ largest trading partner. NATO has also had a great role in enforcing democratic control of armed forces – creating a stable investment climate not just for member countries, but for their partners as well.” A good example of this correlation is Croatia, which saw a surge in FDIs after joining the Alliance in 2009.
In the whole of NATO’s 67-year history, the only time Article V has been used was to help the US, when Washington was going after the Afghan Taliban in the aftermath of 9/11. Even countries that joined NATO after 2001 contributed troops – including allies Trump now frequently decries, such as the Baltics.
“Trump sees international relations as a form of permanent bargaining. And when you’re bargaining, what you’re trying to get is the best deal for yourself” - Philippe Moreau Defarges
As things stand today, it’s unlikely Moscow would want to attack a member of NATO. “Eastern Ukraine, Georgia, all these campaigns have not really gone very well for Russia. They’ve been a drag on the economy, and they’ve involved guerrillas Moscow doesn’t quite control. I’m not sure there’s much appetite for going on another of these adventures again,” says Moreau Defarges.
Frear also thinks it would be a tactical mistake, if not an outright disaster. “Whilst it’s certainly possible Russia would have a short-term advantage in border areas, this probably wouldn’t last. And there’s no way Moscow could guarantee the conflict wouldn’t go nuclear. Not even the most delusional Russian thinks it would be good for Russia to get into a nuclear war.”
The risk of unintended conflict, however, is much higher – and made even greater by Trump’s remarks, which have contributed to raising tensions along NATO’s eastern flank. “With increased military activity in the common area between the two sides, there’s a lot of room for miscalculation,” Frear comments. “Multilateral agreements are quite old and they don’t cover everything, so it’s not always clear who’s allowed to do what.”
A Russian plane behaving provocatively and crashing into an American warship, for instance, could well set the region ablaze.
NATO understands this. Earlier this month, its members agreed to deploy extra troops in the Baltics and Romania, so as to reassure its most exposed allies, whilst also committing to spend more on defence. That should put members on a stronger footing to negotiate with Moscow. NATO-Russia Council meetings, resumed earlier this month after a two-year interruption, could meanwhile provide a useful framework for dialogue; the Alliance should also be sent on other missions, to hammer the point that it is not bent on starting a new Cold War.
Less orthodox measures could also come in handy. While the above efforts are being set in motion, for instance, I would recommend sending a Putin lookalike to New York – just to make sure potential troublemakers are being kept at bay.