Trump’s Blunders on NATO and Russia Make Our European Allies Cringe

Trump’s Blunders on NATO and Russia Make Our European Allies Cringe

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

If you thought Donald Trump’s foreign policy positions were politically calculated toss-offs, think again. The interview he gave The Times of London last week put the world on notice: The views Trump expressed as he campaigned last year—notably on NATO, Europe, and relations with Russia—are his views as of his inauguration today.

NATO’s obsolete, Trump famously asserted during his run for the Republican nomination, and he’ll “get along well” with Russia and its president. As to Europe, that’s on one side of the ocean, America’s on the other, and America comes first. 

Related: Germany Says NATO Concerned About Trump 'Obsolete' Remark 

These positions are so at variance with accepted thinking in Washington that many people assumed Trump would get with the program before moving into the White House. But he has hardly budged. Trump still thinks NATO’s out of date, he told The Times and Bild, the German daily, in their joint interview. He still wants to “make some good deals with Russia,” and “the U.K. was so smart” when it voted last year to exit the European Union. 

Let’s be clear: Trump could make the case on all three of these issues. His error lies in making them now, making them so bluntly, and making them so… un-presidentially. In the course of a conversation, Trump has plunged Europe into a state of uncertainty that’s rare in trans–Atlantic relations, if not unprecedented. So is the smoldering disdain for a new American president Europeans now struggle to disguise.

Until last week Trump might have coasted for a time on the major questions hanging over trans–Atlantic diplomacy. Defeating ISIS, as he also told The Times, remains his highest priority on the foreign-policy side.

That focus is fine, but Trump has just traded all his leeway with the Europeans for a few characteristically crusty remarks. He now has to address, and swiftly after taking office, questions that were fated to be difficult but are now urgent, too: 

Related: Trump’s ‘America First’ Crusade Is a Win with Voters: Poll 

Relations with Russia. How President Trump decides to shape U.S.–Russian ties will determine everything else he does across the Atlantic. And on questions such as Syria and terrorism, there is little question anymore that cooperating with Russia would be of mutual benefit. 

Trump has long faced strong resistance to improving relations from the Pentagon and hawkish senators such as John McCain. In the past 10 days, three of his cabinet appointees—Rex Tillerson (State), James Mattis (Defense), and Nikki Haley (his choice for U.N. ambassador) have joined the chorus against his idea of a new détente

But Trump doesn’t go into this fight unarmed. First, his cabinet choices are perfectly aware of the ideological climate in Washington and know what they have to say to minimize opposition to their nominations. None of their testimony in the confirmation hearings necessarily holds. 

Second, Europeans—and notably emerging right-wing populists such as France’s François Fillon—are weary of the prevailing animus toward Russia and support Trump’s neo-détente. In effect, Europeans are as divided about Trump as Americans are. 

Related: NATO's Top Soldier Says Trump Comments Play Into Hands of Putin 

Third, President Putin knows an opening when he sees one, and he sees one now. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Tuesday that Moscow is inviting the U.S. to join Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Damascus government, and an assortment of anti–Assad rebel groups in new peace talks on Syria. 

Yes or no, Mr. President? This could be your first big foreign-policy decision, and it is certainly a test of your resolve. A day after Lavrov spoke, Russia announced that it had conducted airstrikes against ISIS jointly with Turkey for the first time. As Turkey is a longstanding U.S. ally, this vastly complicates the Pentagon’s anti–Russian position. Your thought, Mr. President?

NATO. Trump’s principal complaint about Atlantic alliance is that it has ignored the threat of terrorism and remained unduly focused on advancing eastward toward Russia’s border. He’s wrong on the first point, right on the second.

The NATO command has shifted considerable attention to anti-terror activities since the September 11, 2001, attacks. Last summer it created a new intelligence post, at assistant secretary-general level, to coordinate intel-sharing on terrorism and other threats. 

But this doesn’t contradict warnings by Henry Kissinger, the late George Kennan, and others that NATO’s eastward advance in the post–Cold War period is a needless provocation. When John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, asserted a few years ago that Russia was too close to NATO’s borders, Russian media ran a mile with the upside-down logic. 

Related: Obama to Trump: Keep Russia Sanctions Separate From Nuclear Talks

Trump’s got complications here. Ten days ago President Obama sent U.S. troops and armored brigades into Poland for the first time since NATO announced plans to toughen its eastern flank two years ago. That ups the ante considerably. 

At the same time, five of the alliances 22 members, by Trump’s count, are paying their fair share of the NATO budget. This is at least partly a measure of the Continent’s attenuated enthusiasm for NATO in the post–Cold War era.

Europe. There are obvious similarities between Trump and his anti–EU counterparts on the Continent. Many of them would surely agree with Trump in his interview with The Times: “You look at the European Union and it’s Germany. Basically a vehicle for Germany.”

But there’s one difference between Trump and his populist confrères in Europe: None of them is the 45th president of the United States.

Again, there’s a credible case that an unelected technocracy has undermined the EU’s legitimacy and appeal, and Trump may prove right that others could follow Britain to the exits. But he has cost himself political friends, notably Angela Merkel, in making the case openly and now.

It’s precisely the extent to which Germany leads the EU that Trump ought not to have said so. The German chancellor is the most committed Atlanticist in Europe. Now Trump takes office with a wary leader atop the EU.

Trump’s all set to exacerbate subterranean rifts in trans–Atlantic ties that Obama has already worsened considerably by overplaying his hand. Maybe Trump wants a wider ocean, but he had better think it through.