Invoking a myriad of hostile Russian actions, United States Defence Secretary James Mattis recently warned of Vladimir Putin’s intent to “break the unity of the Western alliance.”
He forgot to mention that the Russian leader appears to have a wingman in the venture, it being the President of the United States. Among the upheavals brought on by Donald Trump, it’s hard to find one more egregious than his scheming against his country’s traditional allies.
Like Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump, who has shown a fondness for authoritarian leaders, is a hypernationalist. Lately, he’s sounded more closely aligned with the Putin world view than the blueprint adhered to by Western democracies since the Second World War.
Questions mount as to whose team Mr. Trump is playing for. He hasn’t been described as traitorous yet, but if he doesn’t reassure allies at the NATO summit in Brussels this week, they should call him out in such terms.
Mr. Trump regularly castigates paltry defence spending by allies. In advance of the summit, the Trudeau government sent a message his way by committing to add troops and remain a longer period in Latvia as part of NATO’s mission to deter potential Russian aggression in the Baltic country. It’s a small step but it was well-timed.
Mr. Trump, who claims he is tough on Russia, made his first trip to the living purgatory that was the Soviet Union in 1987. In his Moscow visit (I was The Globe and Mail’s correspondent there at the time), he established good ties with the Russians, who became a major source of financing for him when American banks balked.
These were the days of the political miracle on ice, of Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratic spring that brought down totalitarian rule and ended the Cold War. Away went the Warsaw Pact. Eastern Europe was liberated. The entente with the West was cordiale for a time, but Mr. Putin began rebuilding an empire and restoring authoritarian rule, a process which he now accelerates, a process which Mr. Trump unbelievably abets. The evidence is all over the place.
The President goes easy on Mr. Putin for his aggression in the Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Mr. Trump responds softly to the Russians’ outrageous meddling in the 2016 American election. Mr. Trump makes a pitch to have Russia reinstated in the Group of Seven. He is rebuffed and then sabotages the G7 summit in Quebec.
Mr. Trump pounds the Twitterwaves daily, railing against the West’s free-trading infrastructure. He withdraws from multilateral accords. He’s easy on Mr. Putin’s cozy relations with the Syrian dictator, on his rolling back of democratic rights in his own country.
The President attacks the European Union. It is all the things he is not. It supports free trade, action against climate change, multilateralism. “Why don’t you leave the EU?” he reportedly asked French leader Emmanuel Macron.
He upbraids NATO for similar offences. He suggests to Sweden’s leader that it abandon NATO. “NATO is as bad as NAFTA,” Mr. Trump says. He pushes for instability in Germany, tweeting that Germans are turning against their leadership over immigration policies.
It is not known yet whether there’s an underlying malignant dynamic being played out in all this, it being the possibility Mr. Trump is being blackmailed. The Mueller inquiry into election interference will likely provide answers.
In the meantime, the presidential seal of approval keeps coming the Kremlin’s way. “Do you know what?” Mr. Trump said last week. “Putin’s fine, he’s fine.”
He is correct in his complaint that Washington spends more on defence than other NATO members. He wouldn’t have to worry about their defence outlays so much if his own country hadn’t spent a staggering US$2-trillion on an Iraq war triggered by a bogus supposition. The United States and NATO already have overwhelming military superiority over any rival. But he demands more while also hugely increasing a Pentagon budget for military stockpiles of questionable utility in a cyberwarfare era.
Following the NATO summit, Mr. Trump will meet with Mr. Putin in Helsinki. With the Russian leader, “getting along” is “a really smart thing,” he says.
It’s a smart thing if you’re dealing with a Russian leader who listens to reason. It’s a smart thing if getting along does not mean condoning Kremlin aggression but rather results in it being curtailed. But Vladimir Putin shows no willingness to turn a corner and act in partnership with Western democracies.
Nor, it seems, does the U.S. President. He’d rather break the bonds.