Memo to Trump: Don’t Give Away the Farm to Putin

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Trump eschews thick briefing books and has reportedly asked his staff for single-page memos that arrive on his pillow in a red folder. Let’s hope the single-pager covering the busy and crucial week ahead reads something like this:  

From: The National Security Council

To: POTUS

Mr. President, the coming week will include two of the most important international engagements of your presidency. Despite some obvious frustrations with our European colleagues, we need to reinforce positive relations with NATO at the Brussels summit starting Wednesday. At the same time, we need to exercise caution in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the second summit in Helsinki next Monday. Let’s keep it simple — a few key points to remember:

First: Overall, our relationship with Europe is a good deal. At the NATO meeting, we must convey our appreciation for the European allies, even as we encourage them to spend more on defense and work on reducing our trade deficit. The reasons for doing this are not idealistic — they are pragmatic. A good relationship with Europe is in our national interest for four principal reasons:

  Economic Integration. We have significant trade with all the nations of Europe, and collectively the European Union is our largest global trading partner. While we have some tactical disagreements with our European partners over commerce, they will continue to be both a major market for our exports and a source of important goods and services. Wars start with skirmishes that lead to battles and then to full combat. Skirmishing is now in progress, and we are in danger of stumbling into a trade war with our closest allies. Now is the time to walk back.

  NATO. While we should continue to hammer most of the Europeans and Canada for failing to meet the pledge of  spending 2 percent of GDP on defense (of which 20 percent should be for modernizing equipment), our NATO allies have repeatedly stood with us. This included after Sept. 11 — the only time in alliance history the Article 5 mutual-defense pact was invoked — as well as in Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, Syria and on counterpiracy missions in the Indian Ocean. NATO is 29 nations representing half the world’s GDP, and provides millions of troops under arms upon which the U.S. can draw in an emergency. Let’s reinforce the fundamental alignment we have with our partners.

  Geography. The handful of U.S. bases in Europe we still operate – down from hundreds during the Cold War — are not anti-Soviet relics. They are the forward operating stations of the 21st century. Our troops stationed there not only deter Russian adventurism, but also deploy on missions in our national interest to Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa. Two of the Pentagon’s five geographic combatant commanders have headquarters in Europe. The geography of Europe, located on the strategic western edge of the Eurasian landmass, is crucial for U.S. access. Those bases are clearly in our interest, and the European allies do provide significant funding for them.

  Values. Above all, we have a pragmatic self-interest in partnering with nations that share our fundamental values. That means we must work with Europe, the largest pool of countries that truly share those ideals. We can certainly cooperate with non-democratic regimes at times, but engagement with partners who value democracy, liberty, freedom of expression and gender equality is vital — especially as we see authoritarian regimes rising around the world.

Second: Drawing and enforcing red lines is necessary in dealing with Putin. It is certainly a good idea to try and have a friendly relationship with the Russian leader. Congratulate him on hosting a successful World Cup with sincerity and a warm smile. But we must not give ground on five key issues:

  NATO Exercises. Stopping these training events at land and sea will hurt not only allied readiness and morale, but our own capabilities as well. They are not “provocative” (as you incorrectly called their counterparts in Korea), but rather a significant part of establishing deterrence and thus stabilizing the continent. Don’t agree to end them or severely cut them back.

  U.S. Troops. During the Cold War, we had nearly 400,000 troops in Europe. Today that number hovers around 35,000 — a drop of more than 90 percent. Any fewer than this could be seen by Putin as a hollow force, and could cause some Eastern European allies to swing toward greater engagement with Russia. We must not agree to any troop reductions.

  Syria’s War. The dictator Bashar al-Assad is a war criminal who gases his own people and relentlessly violates international law. We must not agree to any pact that validates his behavior. Instead, we should be discussing a partition of Syria, much as we did in the Balkans to end those wars two decades ago. In that, Russia can be a partner — but we cannot sign on to support for Assad. His behavior is beyond the pale.

  Ukraine Sanctions. Mr. President, the invasion and annexation of Crimea is the most serious violation of international law since World War II. Any appearance of capitulating to it undermines global order. We cannot agree to a reduction in sanctions against Russia — which includes letting them back into the G-7 — until the situation there is resolved.

In sum, Mr. President, we have an opportunity over the next week to support our European allies and take a firm stand regarding Russia. We don’t want to end up with a new Cold War, but our approach with Moscow should be simple: confront where we must (Syria, cyber-attacks, Ukraine) and cooperate where we can (narcotics, human trafficking, arms control and the Arctic, among others). The best way to execute that policy is to link arms with our allies, and keep Putin at arm’s length.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.