America’s Values Must Guide White House Diplomacy
(The Bloomberg View) -- Never in my lifetime can I remember a week when a president of the United States did more to insult our closest allies and flatter our biggest adversaries. Alienating friends who share our values while ignoring a hostile power’s intrusions into U.S. sovereignty is diplomacy at its most incompetent and counterproductive — and Americans in both parties must demand that it stop.
At Wednesday’s NATO summit in Brussels, President Donald Trump went out of his way to offend German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying that her country is “captive” to Russia. He turned a legitimate and longstanding complaint about Europe’s under-spending on defense into a slap in the face by seeming to demand that their spending commitments be doubled. And he later undermined U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May by asserting that she is mishandling Brexit negotiations — and praising one of the ministers who just quit her government. His attempt to walk back those comments with his tired refrain — “fake news” — fooled no one. The damage was done. And there was more to come.
On Friday, the president again dismissed the investigation into Russian meddling as a “rigged witch hunt” — even though the Department of Justice had already briefed him on the impending indictment of 12 Russians who attempted to influence the 2016 elections. Trump said he would bring up the subject when he meets with Putin on Monday: “I will absolutely, firmly ask the question.” Sorry, Mr. President. The U.S. Department of Justice has already answered the question.
The state of denial about Russia that pervades the Oval Office has led to Monday’s summit in Helsinki, a major coup for Putin. A strongman who has annexed territory from his neighbors, destabilized U.S. allies in Eastern Europe, abetted war crimes in Syria, and meddled with the 2016 U.S. presidential election gets to share a stage with an American president. That’s great for him. But what’s in it for us? The answer is unclear.
At the top of Putin’s agenda will be relief from sanctions stemming from his land-grab in Crimea. Caving would be a monumental mistake. These punishments are working as they were meant to: Despite rising oil prices, Russia’s petroleum-dependent economy is struggling and Moscow’s financial straits have resulted in nationwide protests over pension reforms. The sanctions must stay on.
Putin will seek signals that the U.S. has accepted his annexation of Crimea. Agreeing to stop U.S. shipments of so-called lethal defensive weapons to Kiev or pledging that neither Ukraine nor Georgia will ever be considered for NATO membership would be a grave error, undermining faith in U.S. security guarantees in the Baltics and Poland.
Putin will also likely offer to take the Syrian civil war off Trump’s hands and to push out Iranian troops and influence. There’s little reason to believe that Moscow has that kind of pull with Tehran. Besides, any Russian promise to push Assad toward peaceful reconciliation would be empty. Moscow is once again backing Syrian government atrocities against civilians.
Putin will also hope to have Trump drop U.S. opposition to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline into Europe. Trump upheld the U.S. stance at the NATO meeting — rightly so, since the pipeline would give Russia significant economic leverage over Europe. He must not waver from that position in Helsinki.
There is, however, one opportunity for productive engagement: Putin’s desire to extend the New START nuclear weapons treaty, set to expire in 2021. The agreement (negotiated by the Obama administration) has flaws, but nonproliferation pacts are generally in the interests of the U.S. because our conventional military is unmatched. Agreeing to new talks has little downside, and the U.S. could use them to draw Russia back into compliance with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces agreement.
Thankfully, Republicans in Congress are far more realistic about Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, but they have been far too restrained in calling for the White House to stop coddling Putin and disparaging our allies.
For generations, leaders in both parties have played essential roles in building and sustaining strategic alliances that have served the U.S. so well — and helped avert World War III. Those alliances are locked together not just by concrete collective action — military cooperation, trade deals and diplomatic initiatives — but also by shared principles. The U.S. and its European allies have been the bulwark of values that have produced so much human progress: democracy, liberty, rule of law, human rights, a free press and capitalism.
Americans overwhelmingly support those values and understand that our interest lies in forming alliances with nations who share them. That is not a Democratic or Republican position. It is part of our identity as Americans — and it’s our collective responsibility to ensure that the White House knows it.
Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News. He is the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for climate action.
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