The world could be a very different place just over a week from now. By then, the NATO military alliance might be in shambles, the international economy will likely be suffering the effects of a multisided trade war and Vladimir Putin may have gained the U.S. President’s acceptance of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Or Donald Trump could reverse course yet again, and none of those things will happen.
Rarely have world leaders faced a week so heavy with uncertainty. Of course, never before has the international system been topped by a man who so openly disdains it.
The stakes could hardly be higher. The 29-member NATO alliance has stood as the guarantor of the West’s security since its founding in 1949. But the military grouping’s biggest concerns are arguably now internal ones, and its dissolution is no longer impossible to contemplate.
Any fracturing of NATO or the EU would be a massive gain for Russia and Mr. Putin, who has been seeking since 2014 to splinter Western unity and end the punitive economic sanctions imposed by the United States, Canada and the EU after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine.
Mr. Trump has been a wild card on that front since the day he was elected – a victory many believe was delivered with at least some help from the Russian government.
Mr. Trump has been broadcasting his scorn for NATO since his election campaign, during which he famously described the alliance as “obsolete.” In office, he has focused his criticism on the fact that U.S. military spending accounts for 70 per cent (Mr. Trump has incorrectly claimed the figure is 90 per cent) of the alliance’s overall total. He shocked his fellow leaders at last month’s G7 summit in Quebec when he declared the alliance that won the Cold War to be “as bad as NAFTA,” a free-trade deal he openly loathes.
That G7 meeting descended into disarray almost entirely because of Mr. Trump, who sideswiped the agenda, first by suggesting that Russia should be readmitted to the club four years after being expelled over Crimea and then – furious at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for suggesting Canada would push back in a trade war – refusing to sign the final communiqué. Many expect the upcoming NATO summit, which begins Wednesday in Brussels, to go just as badly.
Mr. Trump has already guaranteed an acrimonious tone by sending sharply worded letters to Mr. Trudeau and several other leaders, complaining their countries have failed to meet NATO’s guideline of spending 2 per cent of gross domestic product on military and defence.
“The United States is increasingly unwilling to ignore this Alliance’s failure to meet shared security challenges,” Mr. Trump wrote to Mr. Trudeau. He used similar language in letters to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders, leading to worried talk in Europe about the possible end of the almost-seven-decade-old alliance.
European Council President Donald Tusk sent his own letter to European Union leaders last week, warning that “we must be ready to prepare our Union for worst-case scenarios.” The idea of building an EU army – long dismissed as unnecessary since it would duplicate much of what NATO does – is suddenly a hot topic again.
It all comes at a time when military relations between NATO and Russia remain at a post-Cold War low, with both sides accusing the other of building up forces in and around the border states of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. Mr. Trudeau will fly to Latvia on Monday to visit the 450 Canadian troops stationed there – as a deterrent against any Russian aggression – in a clear counterpoint to Mr. Trump’s criticisms.
Mr. Trump is also accused of seeking to undermine both the EU and the World Trade Organization, two other pillars of the world order that he inherited leadership of when he arrived in the White House last year.
The U.S. President has used his Twitter account to launch attacks against Ms. Merkel in particular, tweeting last month that “the people of Germany are turning against their leadership” (though Ms. Merkel, who has been in power since 2005, has been able to preserve her sometimes-shaky coalition government). He has also provided fuel to far-right nationalists on the continent by using his platform to assert that Europe made a “big mistake” in 2015 and 2016 by allowing in some two million refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Mr. Trump claims the new arrivals “strongly and violently changed [Europe’s] culture!”
Meanwhile Mr. Trump has hit the EU, as well as Canada, with tariffs of 25 per cent on steel products and 10 per cent on aluminum. A separate trade war between the United States and China also looms, with new U.S. tariffs on US$34-billion worth of Chinese imports set to take effect on Friday. Beijing will test Mr. Trump’s contention that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” by targeting US$34-billion worth of American goods with its own tariffs.
Mr. Trump has also mused about pulling his country out of the WTO, the body that regulates world trade, saying its rules are “unfair” to the United States.
The U.S. President ends his European tour with a one-on-one summit with Mr. Putin in the Finnish capital of Helsinki, a city that has hosted U.S.-Russian meetings before, though none quite like this one.
Mr. Trump and his surrogates have alarmed many in Europe by suggesting that everything – including Russia’s claim to Crimea – will be up for discussion when he meets Mr. Putin on July 16. Mr. Trump initially plans to meet Mr. Putin alone, only allowing aides into the room after the two have a chance to speak privately, with no record kept of what was said or agreed to.
“We’re going to be talking about Ukraine, we’re going to be talking about Syria, we’re going to be talking about elections. We don’t want anybody tampering with elections. We’ll be talking about world events. We’ll be talking about peace,” Mr. Trump told reporters last week.
Asked whether he might consider lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia, Mr. Trump was non-committal. “We’ll see what Russia does. We’re going to be talking to Russia about a lot of things.” He added that it was his predecessor, Barack Obama, who “lost” Crimea.
The Kremlin is optimistic about reaching some kind of détente in Helsinki. “No doubt, Moscow and Washington have many issues where their positions are diametrically opposed,” Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said this week. “But you see that now political resolve has prevailed and … understanding is growing that such issues for discussion should not be an obstacle on the path to establishing and expanding bilateral dialogue, in this case at the top level.”
Between Brussels and Helsinki, Mr. Trump will make stops in England, where he will meet another Western leader whom he has a chilly relationship with, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and Scotland, where he owns two golf courses. He is also expected to briefly meet the Queen.
Even his three-day trip to the United Kingdom will be packed with controversy, with tens of thousands of protesters expected to march through central London on Friday – beneath a giant inflatable of a diaper-clad baby Trump that was created after a crowdfunding campaign – to protest the U.S. President’s presence.
Ms. May will likely use her time with Mr. Trump to lobby him not to make any concessions to Mr. Putin, especially in light of Russia’s alleged involvement in the use of a nerve agent in the town of Salisbury four months ago. That attempted assassination, which hospitalized a former KGB officer, as well as his daughter and the police officer who found them unconscious, continues to rattle Britain. Two more Salisbury area residents were hospitalized on Wednesday after mysteriously coming into contact with Novichok, the same Soviet-era nerve agent that was used in the March 4 attack.
Those who know Mr. Trump personally don’t expect that he’ll be swayed by the interventions of Ms. May and other NATO leaders.
Jan Halper-Hayes, a former vice-president of Republicans Overseas, said that Mr. Trump doesn’t respect leaders – such as Ms. May or Mr. Trudeau – that he views as lacking “backbone.”
Ms. Halper-Hayes, who worked as an adviser to Mr. Trump’s transition team after he won the White House, predicted that the criticisms from the Western establishment would only embolden Mr. Trump in his efforts to cut a deal with Mr. Putin.
“He’s going to want to come out and say he and Putin are buddies [because] it’s just going to upset so many people.”