(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Forget for just a moment the allegations of Russian meddling in U.S. elections or of collusion by President Trump. His summit with Vladimir Putin has American allies in a state of high anxiety, because the two men have emerged as natural partners in the culture wars sweeping the globe.
There can be few more contrasting personalities than Putin, the disciplined ex-KGB agent, and Trump, the flamboyant former reality TV star. And the two men are unlikely to strike any grand bargain when they meet in Helsinki on July 16, if only because the rest of Washington would block it. Even so, Europe is counting the things that can go wrong.
Trump’s fascination with Russia’s strongman is long-standing. Putin, for his part, has never disguised his interest in this new kind of American leader, one who appears hostile to decades of foreign policymaking based on the promotion of U.S. leadership and shared democratic values. And when it comes to protecting the international rules and institutions that underpinned the American century, liberal supporters of the status quo fear the current White House occupant is more likely to take sides with the illiberal in the Kremlin than with them. Putin and Trump “would agree that the most detested four words in the world right now are ‘international rules-based order,’ ” says Alexander Vershbow, a former deputy secretary general of NATO, now with the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “In terms of values, Trump is much more attracted to what Putin describes as Russian values.”
At this month’s duo of summits—first at North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels, and then with Putin in Helsinki—a few misplaced words from Trump could prove deeply destabilizing for U.S. allies. He could rattle faith in NATO’s collective defense commitment, damage already politically fragile U.S. allies in Europe, or trigger the collapse of sanctions against Russia that have been in place since its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Any or all of that would suit Putin. Like other Kremlin leaders before him, he would like to see NATO dissolved and the U.S. military presence withdrawn from Europe. When Trump called the alliance “obsolete” in January 2017, Putin’s spokesman, to nobody’s surprise, said Russia agreed. Trump has at times also expressed his commitment to NATO, but no modern U.S. leader has been as equivocal. “There is widespread nervousness in Europe right now regarding the trans-Atlantic relationship in general,” says Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute for International Relations, or IFRI, in Paris.
Those concerns are most acute in Poland and the Baltic states because of their exposure to potential Russian aggression, he says. Germany—suddenly aware it can no longer rely on the U.S. for its security—is close behind. Indeed, whether Trump actively shares Moscow’s goals of dividing the European Union and seeing Germany’s long-serving Chancellor Angela Merkel removed from power “is a relevant question,” Gomart says. “If Donald Trump wants to divide Europe, it would be very easy to do so in his discussions with Putin.”
Merkel has kept the EU united behind the Russia sanctions, which were renewed again on July 5. But with a new Italian populist government joining Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia in support of ending them, Trump has an opportunity to swing the debate just by providing rhetorical cover. It would take only one of the EU’s 28 members to prevent the next renewal in January. “There is an unsettling commonality of certain views” between the two leaders, says Dan Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland and assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs under George W. Bush. He also served under Barack Obama. “It is a profound problem that the president of the United States and the leader of Russia share a kind of principled contempt for the free world.”
That kinship was clear already in speeches the two men made back in 2013. In a landmark address, Putin effectively changed Russia’s strategic goal from creating a common European space with the likes of Germany and France to carving out a new Eurasian civilization that would be centered on Russia and defined against a declining and decadent, though still hegemonically inclined, West. The vocabulary Putin used goes a long way toward explaining his popularity with conservative and nativist movements that have rallied to Trump in the U.S. and to populist parties in Europe. “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization,” Putin said in the speech. “They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious, and even sexual.”
Earlier the same year, Trump had criticized the U.S. for excessive international meddling and expansionism. It costs $5 million just to turn on the engine of an aircraft carrier sent to protect U.S. ally South Korea from North Korea’s periodic saber rattling, he complained. “What do we get out of it? We get nothing,” Trump said in his trademark scattergun style. “What are we doing? What are we thinking? And this is whether it’s Obama or Bush or whoever. What the hell are we thinking?”
As president, Trump has also echoed Putin’s culturally conservative language, calling for the U.S. to be run again on allegedly lost “Judeo-Christian values.” He’s been more vocal than the Kremlin in targeting Muslim immigrants for exclusion; Russia has large and potentially restive Muslim minorities.
None of this means the two men share a strategic vision, according to Nikolai Sokov, a former Russian nuclear negotiator and senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. From a Russian perspective, the whole U.S. claim to be the protector of the rules-based international order is false, he says. For Putin, that order took shape during the global rivalry between the U.S. and the USSR, which divided the world into spheres of superpower influence. Putin sees himself as a guardian of institutions such as the United Nations Security Council and the World Trade Organization, which set common rules but allow Russia to stand on the crucial principle of sovereignty—which, in Moscow’s eyes, has been under attack by the U.S. and its allies since the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
For most U.S. policymakers, by contrast, the rules-based order is the one that emerged since the Cold War ended, leaving the U.S. as the sole superpower. That order places some fundamentally liberal values above sovereignty. Until 2005, for example, there was no international “right to protect” victims of genocide from their own governments. Similarly, NATO’s claim to international legitimacy for its 1999 intervention in Kosovo, without UN Security Council backing, would have been hard to imagine during the Cold War.
Trump appears to despise the UN and the WTO, but what makes the American president interesting to Putin is that he’s a throwback to a realist, if not isolationist, approach to U.S. foreign policy: He has no desire to spread liberal or democratic values around the globe. That, Sokov says, makes him a man Russia can at least do business with.
If a different president were in the White House, U.S. allies probably would have relished both summits. Even the sequence would be right: First consult with allies, then talk to Putin, says Fried, the former U.S. diplomat. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said recently, the trans-Atlantic alliance has a good story to tell. Defense spending has reversed post-Cold War declines, with the European NATO members, plus Canada, collectively adding $87 billion to their military budgets since 2014. The alliance has deployed a deterrent force to Poland and the Baltic states in response to Russia’s continued military intervention in eastern Ukraine. NATO is due to announce the start of accession talks with another prospective member, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, potentially lifting the alliance roster to 30 nations.
The U.S. under Trump, contrary to what his tweets imply, has boosted spending on defense deployments in Europe by an impressive 40 percent. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is offering up plans to thicken the new tripwire presence along NATO’s eastern frontiers, so it can be reinforced more quickly in the event of attack.
Europeans also have good reason to want U.S. and Russian leaders to meet. They’re concerned by the erosion of arms-control agreements and breakdown in communications between the two dominant military powers, which between them control more than 90 percent of nuclear weapons on the planet. Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron routinely meet and speak with Putin, so why not Trump? “The point is that this is the world we have,” says Des Browne, a former U.K. defense minister. Together with Igor Ivanov, a former Russian foreign minister, former German Ambassador to the U.S. Wolfgang Ischinger, and former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn, Browne co-authored an open letter to Trump and Putin ahead of their first encounter, on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg last year. The short text proposed the first steps the two leaders should take to reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe.
Those proposals are unchanged now that the two men are about to meet again. “Nothing will happen unless the dialogue between these two leaders happens,” Browne says. On July 5, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. told reporters that nuclear arms control would be high on the agenda in Helsinki.
The U.S. president could, of course, decide to embrace NATO allies in Brussels and hold Putin’s feet to the fire over Russia’s military presence in Ukraine or tactics in Syria. But in recent weeks he seemed to be gearing up for the opposite.
During off-camera discussions at the diplomatic car crash of a G-7 meeting in Toronto last month, Trump called NATO “as bad as Nafta,” saying the alliance’s July 11-12 meeting in Brussels would be “an interesting summit,” according to the Axios news service. Since then he has fired off blunt letters to NATO members including Germany, which he attacked for not boosting defense spending fast enough (it rose 6.6 percent last year) and for free riding on the tax dollars of U.S. citizens and the lives of its soldiers. “Sometimes our worst enemies are our so-called friends and allies,” Trump told supporters at a rally in North Dakota on June 28. His signals to Putin have been friendlier. At the G-7 he said Russia, which was expelled for annexing Crimea, should be invited back into the club, while on Fox News he recently repeated his belief that people in Crimea are happier being governed by Moscow than Ukraine.
As Trump proved at his summit with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, anything is possible. In Singapore, Trump went off-script to describe U.S. military exercises with South Korea as provocative “war games” that should stop. A verbal attack like that on NATO exercises or the economic sanctions against Russia could prove profoundly destabilizing to the U.S. alliances Mattis once described as “the greatest gift of the greatest generation.” Like Putin, Trump appears to see that gift as more of a curse.
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