We used to console ourselves that Donald Trump is not for real. He does not mean what he tweets, and he cannot possibly want what he trumpets. So stay cool. The rhetoric of American presidents has always been more grandiloquent and fanciful than their action—like JFK’s pledge to “pay any price” and “bear any burden” to “assure the survival of liberty.”
Yet by now, America’s friends know that their fears are no fantasies. Yes, Donald Trump really does want to demolish the international order the United States had built, financed, and guarded since World War II. Here is the latest chapter in this grim saga—the upcoming NATO summit in Brussels, followed by a schmooze fest à deux to be held by Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
To be sure, Trump’s predecessors have always supped with strongmen and dictators because strategic interest beat out moral concerns—from Spain’s fascist caudillo Francisco Franco to the despots of Saudi Arabia. Yet Trump not only flatters and coddles them, be it North Korea’s Kim Jong-un or Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Nor is his fascination with today’s authoritarians a matter of impulse or whim. Given the mounting evidence, a design is shaping up that bodes ill for the West, the linchpin of U.S. grand strategy for 70 years.
The core of that relationship is NATO, plus adjunct institutions like the G7, the economic “politbureau” of the West, and farther afield, the World Trade Organization, née GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs), a brainchild of the United States spawned in 1947 to advance free trade.
Recall the G7 summit in Canada a month ago. Trump came late, left early, and lashed out at key allies in between while pressing them to re-admit Russia. He refused to sign the summit declaration. A bit later, he tweeted: “Free trade is now to be called fool trade.” On May 31, he had imposed punitive tariffs on the European Union and on Canada.
While calling Canada’s premier Justin Trudeau “weak and dishonest,” he praised Pyongyang’s dictator Kim as “talented” and “very smart,” as a leader who wants to do “the right thing.” Without consulting America’s old South Korean ally, he canceled joint military exercises, demeaning them as “provocative” and “tremendously expensive.”
Now it is Vladimir Putin’s turn to advance to Trump’s “newest best friend,” a shibboleth Trump had sprung on the world in the run-up to the 2016 elections. That moniker seems bizarre no more. It just so happens that the President will meet Putin at their first formal summit right after the NATO confab in Brussels on July 11 and 12.
The allies are bracing for the worst, as Trump has already telegraphed his punches. In a letter to his “newest best enemy,” German chancellor Angela Merkel, he wrote, ”The United States continues to devote more resources to the defense of Europe when the Continent’s economy, including Germany’s, are doing well and security challenges abound. This is no longer sustainable for us.” This love letter was accompanied by the threat to pull U.S. troops (about 35,000) out of Germany, perhaps relocating them to Poland. Reportedly, this move would be executed outside of NATO, and within a bilateral Polish-American agreement. Forget multilateralism.
What’s next, when Trump and Putin gather at their Helsinki summit? Smaller allies are always nervous when elephants make love, trampling the grass beneath them. But in this case, the Europeans are not necessarily wallowing in fantasies of fear. The obvious deal is one of betrayal, with Trump paying for Putin’s good will with the lifting of sanctions plus the acceptance of the Crimea grab and the indirect incorporation of Ukraine’s southeast. Having held the line on sanctions, the Europeans will rightly feel duped.
Trump has already paved the way, pontificating: “Crimea is Russian because everyone who lives there speaks Russian.” Of course, they do. Catherine the Great stole the peninsula from the Ottomans in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 and then Russified it.
What does Trump want from Putin? In March, he tweeted that Russia “can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race.” This is a nice menu, but Putin is not Trump’s waiter. Great powers never set the table for other great powers; they want to be paid up front for every dish they serve. Yet this classic feature of power politics is not the central point. Trump is monkeying with what diplomatic historians call a “reversal of alliances.”
Instead of dealing with pesky (and indeed underspending) allies, Trump is dreaming about playing with the big boys: Russia, China and the recently promoted North Korea—back to 19th-century Europe on a worldwide scale. The chips in this game are raw power, not the regional and global institutions the United States crafted ages ago.
Yes, alliances like NATO, where the mightiest member shelters the rest, have blessed the Europeans with a measure of free-riding, delivering security at a discount. In return, though, such institutions amplified and legitimized American power, not to speak of anchoring global stability. Yet Trump fantasizes that NATO serves only those deadbeat Continentals. In truth, NATO is the cornerstone of American power on the Eurasian continent and across the Atlantic.
Yes, multilateral institutions like the IMF, WTO and the World Bank obliged the United States to submit to common rules, but in exchange, the world’s largest economy could profit from open markets for goods and capital, not to speak of the dollar as global currency. Of the ten largest companies (by market value), eight like Apple and Facebook are American. Lashing out with tariffs left and right, Trump is tearing away at this win-win fabric.
Evidently, he does not understand that trade war is a lose-lose game. Nobody wins, least of all the American consumer who must pay more for everything made from steel and aluminum now rendered more expensive by punitive tariffs, from refrigerators to construction machinery and aircraft. On the rebound, such levies beget retaliation on other fronts, like Harley-Davidson motorcycles and, down the line, U.S. agriculture, one of the country’s biggest exports. Midwest farmers, especially in swing states, will not be amused.
Kick your old-time allies hard enough, and they will budge, as the Europeans are doing by gingerly raising defense expenditures. Kick them harder and often, and they will begin planning without Mr. Big. They might cozy up to the Kremlin or build permanent walls around the EU, especially non-tariff barriers, which are a lot more effective than duties. A world that has looked to America will eye other vistas. Those who used to bandwagon with Uncle Sam will balance against him. In the end, raw power unalloyed by responsibility always begets push-back.
Donald Trump might get a personal kick out of this “let’s screw ’em” world he wants. America home alone will not. Even little kids ultimately gang up on the schoolyard bully who keeps stealing their lunch. This bully, though, will not reform. Can they send him to reform school? They might—on November 3, 2020. Meanwhile, the Great Unraveling will continue.