On the Road Again

Donald Trump travels to the NATO Summit in Brussels on July 9, then after to his meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia on July 16. These two weeks could change the world again.

Donald Trump. Photo: Gage Skidmore, CC

As Trump approaches the upcoming meetings in Belgium and Russia, the world is watching. These will involve a lot less pomp and circumstance than when he met with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un but are poised to be far more important than what happened with Kim in Singapore. Trump will also be unsupervised for much of both these events, with no aides helping him or protecting him – from himself.

With NATO, Trump is now coming face-to-face with many of the same group he worked to unsettle during the earlier G7 meeting. While there, he had pushed the need for the trade wars which were just starting then, and for inviting Russia to re-join the G7 group. On both grounds Trump did not get much traction, and only served to anger the leaders of America’s longest-lasting group of allies.

Since that meeting, the trade wars have launched in earnest with the world and the EU in particular. The U.S. tariffs on imported steel and aluminum went into effect, as did the counter tariffs from the EU. Trump’s pullout of the Iran denuclearization deal has also had its ripple effects, with countries in Europe feeling blackmailed by the U.S. to comply with the re-imposing of sanctions on Iran by the U.S., all despite that Iran was apparently in full compliance with the original agreement. Within Europe, Italy just recently announced it is shutting down orders for new American-built fighter planes, apparently in response to a number of Trump’s actions against the EU. And Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, is struggling to find political balance in a tough series of arguments with the opposition party about immigration.

All this points to a potentially weakened European unity on how to respond to Trump when NATO gathers together in just a short time. Trump will likely capitalize on it and move quickly to stabilize the alliance even further, perhaps using his recent rhetoric about defense under-spending in NATO countries as the starting point. The NATO alliance is fully-up-to-speed with its dues payments, something Trump never seems to acknowledge. Fighting that the member countries are spending less than desired on their actual defense budgets seems to stick harder with both the press and his base. It also positions Trump as a tough leader who demands weak international colleagues to bow to his bidding. This is happening despite U.S. military budgets being so large a chunk of the U.S. Federal Budget that few countries could be expected to follow suit. It is also important to remember that much of U.S. “defense” spending is in fact “offense” spending on wars the U.S. starts and countries the U.S. invades. Few in the NATO alliance would have any interest in fighting alongside the U.S. in an offensive capacity, which appears to be what Trump is hinting at as what they should be doing.

Trump’s summary rhetoric for Europe and the NATO alliance is singularly deceptive and effective, all at the same time. As he said in a rally in Montana this past week, “They kill us on trade. They kill us on other things. They make it impossible to do business in Europe, and yet they come in and they sell their Mercedes and their BMWs to us. So, we have USD 151 billion in trade deficits with the EU. On top of that, they kill us with NATO. They kill us.”

After this comes the meeting with Vladimir Putin. With Trump likely leaving NATO in disarray after he brings out his arguments against them in person, it is especially timely that the meeting with Russia comes next in Trump’s travels. Trump will use the summit to show how Putin has reassured him that his country had nothing to do with meddling in the last U.S. election. This will happen despite all major intelligence agencies in the U.S. having agreed that Russia did meddle and probably will continue to meddle in the future. If this meeting with Putin goes well for his base relations, expect Trump to end up giving away something big to Putin as thanks for meeting with him. Many fear it could be an agreement for the U.S. to back off in the Middle East and let the Russia-Syria alliance have its way with the region. That could result in a wave of genocide worse than anything seen in the region for years, perhaps even decades.

When the dust settles after the meetings in Brussels and Helsinki, this could be a very different world – in terms of alliances – than it was just a few short days ago.