President Trump’s last international trip to the G7 Summit resulted in the worst meeting of its kind since its inception, given his outburst at America’s usual allies, and was compounded by the contrast a day later with his cordial meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jung Un in Singapore. Many Transatlanticists were prepared for the worst as Trump made his way to NATO and the UK before seeing Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. The good news, is that the NATO summit went better than expected, though many commentators still called it the worst in history. The bad news, however, is that despite lowered expectations, damage was still done to transatlantic relations. The question now is: how severe and long-lasting will this damage be?
President Trump’s self-created drama over NATO’s military spending where he threw out 4% as an unrealistic new goal even as he complained about European spending levels that haven’t even reached the 2% commitment yet seemed counterproductive. His transactional “Art of the Deal” negotiating logic seemed to preclude win-win scenarios and instead painted all of America’s traditional allies as free-riders and potential adversaries. President Trump even went so far as to call the European Union a foe in an interview from the UK where he also directly inserted himself in the ongoing Brexit debate. Beyond breaking diplomatic protocol and insulting his hosts who responded in a stoic British manner, the general population protested with passion generating excoriating headlines and wit that all shattered the so-called “special relationship.”
Critics were already beginning to say the sky was falling as Trump flew to Helsinki even as others described the NATO summit and UK visit as a “hiccup”. Supporters of Trump pointed to the end result of NATO Secretary-General giving Trump credit for raising the overall spending by the alliance. However, following the now infamous press conference in Helsinki with Putin, even many of Trump’s usual supporters admitted the meeting was a disaster. Now, questions that Europeans were quietly asking themselves about America’s commitment and leadership more broadly are being trumpeted around the world.
Given that the post-World War Two international order that America created with its European allies centered on a security bedrock, with guaranteed protection against Russia in particular, the debate after President Trump’s transatlantic trip is how much lasting damage has been done. The bottom-line for any alliance is that it is only as strong as the credibility of the commitments made by its members, particularly its most powerful one. The American President excoriating his British and NATO allies during the same week that he stood next to the Russian President not even mentioning the invasions of Ukraine or Georgia much less the multitude of humanitarian crimes in Syria or even cyber-attacks on the United States, will be the lasting transatlantic image of this trip. Whether or not any transatlanticists working in the Trump administration come to the President’s defense or quit will be telling.
The irony of course is that the ostensible reason for NATO’s existence. Russia, whose Soviet shadow looms large with Putin, has never been more aggressive in a post-Cold War environment – nor has the United States under Trump been more ambivalent about Europe’s future. Adding salt to the wounds was the timing of the bilateral summit in Helsinki with Putin. Much like Trump’s first visit to Europe which juxtaposed his awkwardness with America’s democratic allies versus its Middle Eastern autocratic allies, the optics did not work in his favor internationally. However, at the end of the day Trump seems to care more about projecting his power back to his domestic base which he has done with great effect by simply changing the script and making up facts and history as he sees fit.
Trump’s populist and anti-globalist instincts fly in the face of every American president since the end of World War Two, but play well at home. Therefore while NATO may be the greatest international security alliance and organization of its time, the fissures from within are only being exacerbated by Trump. The greatest winner from Trump’s performance at the NATO summit and his visit to Britain is undoubtedly Putin, who met him in Helsinki with a steely handshake as he disguised the glee he must have felt during the press conference. While Trump could argue he had the leverage and upper hand during the summit, no one believes he came out ahead after this trip. Europe lacks a real alternative to the United States, but given Trump’s performance they are already beginning to find ways of distancing themselves, while finding new ways to work with Russia rather than against it.
As Americans focus more on domestic battles and take for granted their status around the world, understanding the long-term implications of this trip will be critical. The juxtaposition between having inditements against Russian agents by Special Counsel Mueller and consensus amongst the American intelligence community of Russian interference, and President Trump insisting on taking Putin’s wordon his non-involvement will only further polarize America. Trump’s critics will be driven mad and demand impeachment, while his supporters will further burrow in and blame the media and Democrats rather than Russia.
In the short-term the NATO summit was not a disaster and the normal communique was issued. However, destroying institutions like NATO rarely happens in a spectacular blowup but rather through a gradual undermining of the commitments and values that have guided the alliance for over seven decades. Short-term transactionalism cannot substitute for the long-term investment that the Marshall Plan and international institutional prominence earned America after World War Two. Unfortunately, Trump is spending America’s goodwill capital very quickly without replenishing it. Hopefully even with an American president who does not truly believe in any alliance, including the bedrock transatlantic one, the institutions created in the aftermath of World War Two and the seventy years of history that binds will hold along with an American population and new leaders who are destined to emerge. While transatlantic relations may not be the same under Trump, every crisis is an opportunity. Hopefully America and Europe rise to the occasion.
Joshua W. Walker, PhD (@drjwalk) is Global Head of Global Strategic Initiatives at Eurasia Group and is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views express in this article adapted from an earlier piece published with Providence and his alone.