Donald Trump’s audition seems to be going well. By the time he sits down with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki next week (with no witnesses present) he will have ticked off an impressive list of tasks. Beginning in Brussels, he so disrupted and threatened the NATO alliance that the Pentagon had to go into immediate damage control mode.
Hours after President Donald Trump departed NATO headquarters Thursday, U.S. military leaders embarked on a full-scale “damage control” operation with calls to their counterparts across Europe to reassure them that America will abide by its defense commitments in the region.
The outreach, directed by the Pentagon leadership, came after Trump threatened to reassess those commitments during a gathering with NATO allies in Brussels, according to multiple current and former diplomatic and military officials familiar with the calls.
The overall message from senior military officials in a series of phone calls to members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been that U.S. military bases in their countries will remain open and American troop levels in the region will not be reduced.
But the damage cannot be undone and now no European politician could significantly increase defense spending even if they wanted to without looking like Trump’s poodle. That might suit liberals just fine but it suits Putin even better. The alliance is weakened and vulnerable border states with Russia will feel less protected and more like vassals of their domineering neighbor.
Even before he left for his trip, Trump’s verbal abuse of Europe spurred a response from E.U. President Donald Tusk, who reminded Trump to “Appreciate your allies. After all, you don’t have that many.” But Trump’s first order of business upon arrival was to launch a blistering attack on German chancellor Angela Merkel in an effort to weaken her at a tumultuous point in her government’s effort to tackle immigration policy. Do you think the Germans recognize this rhetoric?
The President warned that immigration was hurting Germany and other parts of Europe “very much,” apparently referring to a wave of refugees who have entered Europe from shattered Syria and other unstable societies in the Middle East and North Africa.
“I think they better watch themselves because you are changing culture, you are changing a lot of things, you are changing security.”
Putin couldn’t have plunged a shiv into Merkel any better than that, but Trump had something even more deadly in mind for Theresa May. The week before the president’s arrival in the United Kingdom saw Prime Minister May’s government falter over its plans to separate from the European Union. As Paul Krugman helpfully explains here, May has been trying to sell a “soft Brexit” that would keep the U.K. within a common customs union with the Continent, but this caused several of her ministers to resign in protest. As a result, there is some doubt if she can retain the confidence of Parliament. Trump made sure to take the side of her “Hard Brexit” critics and give her a solid push.
In an interview with The Sun that was conducted while he was in Brussels but published while he was dining with May, Trump claimed that she had failed to follow his advice on how to properly cleave from the European Union with very unfortunate results. He even said that a soft Brexit would preclude the U.K. from striking a new trade deal with America to help them offset the damage their economy will suffer from European tariffs. Trump could not have delivered a more deadly threat, as the entire premise of the Brexiteers is based on a new trade deal with the United States. Trump was saying that a soft break from the E.U. could never work because he wouldn’t allow it to work.
All of these things advance Putin’s goals. He wants to discourage the West’s defense spending, undermine NATO and force border states back into vassalage. He wants a weakened European Union, and a thorough cleaving of the U.K. from the E.U. accomplishes that more effectively than anything else could. He wants weak and distracted governments in London and Berlin. And he wants America alienated from their traditional allies so that Europe will be less willing to stand in the way of his plans. All that’s really left is for Trump to cut a deal with Russia over Syria that will facilitate their unfettered control over the country.
But that will come in Helsinki, probably after Trump gets done having his private meeting with Putin and hearing how well he’s done so far. I know he’s looking forward to it.
It would seem Trump is most looking forward to his encounter with the Russian president on July 16, rather than his one-day tour in the U.K.: “Frankly Putin may be the easiest of them all. Who would think. Who would think. But the U.K. certainly has a — they have a lot of things going on.”