While the presidency of Donald Trump has presented many sea changes in American foreign policy, perhaps the most dramatic is the turnaround in attitudes towards Russia and Vladimir Putin’s leadership. Previous presidents have tried to reset the relationship with Russia, but Trump’s admiration of Putin and his apparent willingness to side with Putin against American allies is beyond a reset — it is revolutionary. This relationship raises doubts about the future of NATO and stability in Europe. There has been much speculation about the sources of this attitude toward Russia, with no definitive answers.
The challenge in understanding Trump is that he often says things that contradict previous statements. However, when it comes to Vladimir Putin, Trump has been quite consistent. He has repeatedly spoken positively about Putin, often in admiration of his strong leadership. Putin “has been a leader far more than our president [Obama] has been,” he told the BBC. This is not new, as Trump complimented Putin in a 2011 book, Time to Get Tough: Making America No. 1 Again. Given that Putin has had opponents and journalists killed, given harbour to Edward Snowden, and, of course, attacked Ukraine, one would think that an American politician would not want to be too chummy with him. However, to Trump, these may be assets and not drawbacks.
There has been much speculation about why Trump has such fondness for Putin. Most famously, a widely circulated dossier suggested Trump is being blackmailed due to indiscretions the Russians filmed in Moscow and perhaps elsewhere. One could focus on Trump’s business interests in Russia. He may owe hundreds of millions of dollars to Russian banks. However, he also owes a great deal of money to Chinese banks, but is quite hostile towards China.
It might make more sense, therefore, to focus on Trump’s admiration of authoritarian leaders. Putin is not the only autocrat that Trump has admired. About Kim Jong Un of North Korea, he told those at an Iowa campaign rally: “You have to give him credit… he goes, he takes over and he’s the boss.”
He has said similarly positive things about Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Chinese leaders and even Mussolini. So, one does not have to buy into theories of blackmail, but instead pay attention to Trump’s words. He likes autocrats, respecting strength even as it is defined as repression and brutality. Perhaps the key to Trump’s fondness for Russia these days is that Putin has played his cards well, pandering to Trump and his ego. Again, it is hard to tell what is driving this dynamic.
It is far easier to discern the effects of this relationship on international peace and stability. Simply put, Trump’s relationship with Putin puts a great deal of the post-Second World War order at risk. Trump’s stances on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO], the European Union and Ukraine all present grave threats. The risks in the years ahead are mighty high.
The future of NATO is at stake
For as long as NATO has existed and especially after the end of the Cold War, there has been much anxiety about its continued existence. Today, the alliance truly is in danger. Trump is very inconsistent on most things, but he has consistently been critical of the Atlantic alliance. While many American leaders have been critical of the burden-sharing, Trump is the first to suggest that countries that do not pay enough might not receive American backing in a crisis. Indeed, Trump’s language is closer to a protection racketeer: It would be awful if something happened to you… if you do not pay up. This would be problematic in normal circumstances, but it is doubly dangerous now with Putin seeking any opportunity to break NATO. Since the illegal annexation of Crimea, NATO has struggled to provide stronger assurances to those most exposed — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and, to a lesser degree, Poland. At the last summit, NATO countries agreed to send modest numbers of troops, a thousand to each of the four, to deter Russian aggression. The Obama administration deployed a brigade combat team early, just before Christmas, perhaps to make it harder for Trump to backtrack on Obama’s promises.
However, it does not take much to undo these commitments. First, the American troops are rotated in and out, and there is nothing stopping Trump from cancelling the U.S.’s next rotation. Congress cannot force Trump to meet his alliance commitments. Second, despite efforts by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to reassure Europeans, in a crisis, the person deciding how the United States would vote at the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s decision-making body, is the president. So, the leaders of the Baltics are most uncertain these days about whether the United States would come to their defence. And that is a problem since Article V — an attack upon one is to be considered an attack upon all — is at the very heart of NATO. If Putin were to trigger a crisis and the United States does not act as it has promised for 70 years, the alliance might well fall apart.
One of the basic findings in the study of war is that wars occur when there is uncertainty about alliances. Sometimes, it is when a country feels overconfident about its friends and launches aggression. Often, it is when a country feels that its target will be alone, attacks, and then finds itself at war with an alliance. The Gulf War of 1990-91 started exactly this way. Maybe Putin will be surprised and find NATO to be more resolute than he expects, but that would be after the crisis is well along, perhaps leading to a real shooting war in Europe. The stakes are simply that high ,with Trump creating too much uncertainty about what NATO might do.
The European Union as an alternative
If NATO were to fall apart, some might look to the European Union to replace the alliance as the provider of security in Europe. The problem is that Trump is abetting Putin’s assault on the European Union as well. Ted Malloch, Trump’s choice for U.S. ambassador to the European Union, said on a late-night talk show that he “had in a previous career a diplomatic post where I helped bring down the Soviet Union. So maybe there’s another union that needs a little taming.” Trump’s hostility to the EU was clear as he rooted on Brexit, but appointing an ambassador who is this hostile to the organization is shocking Europeans. Again, this would not be so problematic if Putin were not also seeking to undermine the EU. By supporting far-right parties across Europe that are hostile to the EU, Putin is trying to make sure that Ukraine and Belarus and other countries in its self-appointed sphere of influence are denied the temptation of membership.
While the EU has had much difficulty facing a series of crises over the past few years, it has also been responsible for much prosperity as well as the fostering of democracy in what used to be the Warsaw Pact. Its demise would be detrimental to international commerce and stability in the Balkans where the promise of membership may have moderated the impact of nationalists in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. While the EU is somewhat less vulnerable than NATO — the British are learning that exit is hard and costly — it still faces a rough road ahead due to the combined challenges posed by Trump and Putin.
Ukraine as a battlefield
Perhaps no country is more worse off after Trump’s victory than Ukraine. While the United States does not have a commitment to defend Ukraine, at least not one as strong as the ties to NATO countries, its support of Ukraine in its war against Russia has been significant. Trump, however, has indicated that Crimea is a done deal, and it is time to put that dispute in the past. While social scientists like to say that correlation is not causation, it may not be a coincidence that Russian attacks in Ukraine recently escalated, shortly after Trump had his first presidential phone call with Vladimir Putin. Whether Trump gave Putin a green light or not, the appearance of one will create yet more uncertainty and fear in Ukraine and in the region.
We really do not know what is motivating Trump, but his apparent willingness to drop sanctions against Russia without getting anything in return is suggestive. Trump seems to favour Putin and his preferences over those of the U.S.’s traditional allies and newer friends. Trump’s hostility to multilateral co-operation threatens not just NATO and the European Union. Combined with the Putin admiration, it makes the threats to these institutions more severe.
The key problem is that the United States has spent 70 years trying to reduce uncertainty about its role in Europe and in the international order, and now Trump is willing to kiss all of that goodbye. Leaders will worry and try to anticipate, either by arming themselves or by appeasing their potential aggressor. Neither pathway leads to stability or prosperity. International relations are hard enough to conduct when the bedrock upon which much is based is firm, but when it is shaking, as Trump shakes U.S.’s commitment to the international order, countries will be facing tough choices, guessing about the likely behaviour of friends and foes, and probably making more than a few tragic mistakes.
Stephen M. Saideman is the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University.