Something like a Trump foreign policy seems to finally be taking shape. If it can be characterized by anything concrete, it would be by how the US president savages America’s erstwhile allies and befriends its enemies. There is no better example of this than the president’s apparent inability to find any fault whatsoever with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, who is the antithesis of upstanding democratic leadership and of respect for the rule of law—especially international law. Meanwhile, President Trump has laser-focused blistering criticism on the current leaders—both female leaders, it might be added, which, if we were talking about anyone but Donald Trump, might simply be taken as a coincidence—of two of the most prominent of US allies, Britain and Germany. And he further trashed the entire NATO alliance in his first comments at a breakfast in Brussels, before the latest North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit had even begun.
Indeed, this week, far from striking a more conciliatory tone with America’s European allies, whom, for all intents and purposes, he has been serial-insulting ever since his presidential campaign in 2016, Trump waded into the summit in his typical bull-in-a-china-shop style and did his best to further fray the already increasingly thread-bare fabric of a 70-year-old alliance that has been largely responsible for maintaining a semblance of global peace since World War II. And he added insult to injury by quipping that he would probably have an easier meeting with Putin than with the America’s fellow NATO allies.
Most of Trump’s trash talk about Europe has to do—like the majority of other topics in his life—with money. His complaint is the same as that of other US presidents before him: that most of the United States’ allies aren’t paying their fair share of the cost of maintaining the Western alliance. As per usual, once Trump turns on the stream of insults, there’s always collateral mud-slinging. In this case, he made a tangential reference to his predecessors George W. Bush and Barack Obama when he said that other presidents had complained about the failure of European members of NATO to pull their own weight but that he planned to do something about it.
The threat sounds a lot like a Mafia-style “insurance” pitch. Pay up, because if not, well, it sure would be too bad if something happened and we weren’t there to protect you. As usual, Trump led with his mouth. Like when he said that the UK was in turmoil under its current Prime Minister Theresa May and described resigning Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (who's a sort of British brother by another mother to Trump in both looks and politics) as "a good friend" who had been "very supportive," adding that he wouldn't mind seeing Johnson while in England. Or when he said that Germany was “a captive to Russia” because of the Russian energy resources that it imports. He reiterated this last charge, saying Germany was, because of these energy imports, “totally controlled” by the Russians while asking to be protected from Russia.
Also as usual, however, Trump got his facts wrong. Germany actually only gets less than a third of its natural gas from Russia via the Nordstream Pipeline that connects the two countries directly. And although Trump isn’t the only Western leader who has shown concern over this and a second planned Russo-German pipeline, Germany has a healthy list of alternative sources with which to cover its overall energy mix.
It is wrong, moreover, to even consider the Nordstream Pipeline as a symbol of German dependence on Russia. In point of fact, Russia is notoriously short of export possibilities in almost every field except energy (and arms), so it could be strongly argued that the Russians are as dependent on German revenues as the Germans are on Russian gas. And if Trump really had any desire to hurt Putin’s Russia, instead of seeing how hostile he can make US relations with Germany, he would be trying to woo German Chancellor Angela Merkel in order to strike a trade deal to sell more LNC (Liquid Natural Gas) to the Germans—killing two birds with one stone by reducing a major ally’s dependence on Russia and at the same time underscoring his largely hollow “America First” policy by generating increased exports to Europe.
In terms of NATO as a whole, it can be argued that the major West European countries should be paying a somewhat greater share of the cost of the NATO alliance, or at least that they should have been paying a bigger proportion since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Originally, the US interest in NATO, and in paying whatever it had to in order to form part of that alliance, was as a platform for its Cold War and arms race against the Soviets. Since the late eighties, prosecution of that purpose has been largely curtailed. But since 2014, Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he plans to return Russia to a place of importance as a global military power. Clearly, the Eastern European nations are taking this threat seriously. Being the closest countries to the Russian Bear, they have already brought their NATO spending up to the Washington-demanded two percent or above, in anticipation of Russian aggression following Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his backing for irregular military action within Ukraine. It is the obvious hope of these Eastern members that if Putin moves on them, NATO, and particularly the US, will be there for them.
Furthermore, the US has used NATO as much as NATO has used the United States, and this is something of which Trump, in his blind ignorance, seems unaware. NATO continues to be a major platform for US global hegemony. If the NATO alliance falters, current Allies will be unlikely to help the US in its multiple military actions around the world. And if Trump decides to go back on the US commitment to NATO—the way he did on the worldwide climate accord—Europe won’t simply lie down and die. It will indeed find solutions for its own defense and security, marginalizing the US from any intervention in topics of European interest, and perhaps also becoming unwilling to continue to host strategic American military bases on European soil. In other words, while Putin is fighting tooth and nail to keep Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria so that he can continue to maintain a major Russian naval base in that country, the US president seems to be actively seeking to destroy the most strategic alliance of which the United States forms part in the entire world.
No matter what the future may hold—a single Trump presidency would surely be a plus—the increasingly hostile relations between Europe and the United States play, without a doubt, into the hands of Vladimir Putin as if he had planned Trump’s dubious foreign policy himself, and the US president is sure to get a warm, fraternal welcome from the Russian autocrat when they meet in Helsinki for a summit of their own next Monday.