WASHINGTON, DC – As Donald Trump’s first foreign trip as president proceeds, the turmoil generated by his firing of FBI Director James Comey and the ongoing inquiry into his election campaign’s ties with Russia are following him. In none of the places he will visit will the events in Washington weigh more heavily than in Brussels, where he will meet with NATO leaders. Those American allies will be hoping for two things from Trump: reassurance that he is aware of the basic facts of European affairs, and signs that he is prepared to exercise the kind of leadership that NATO needs now.
The threat posed by Russia is the main feature of European international relations today. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic regime has sent troops into one former Soviet republic, Georgia; invaded and occupied part of a second, Ukraine; and harassed and tried to intimidate three others – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (all three of them NATO members). As during the Cold War, European democracies are counting on NATO to protect them from danger from the east.
Europeans were relieved to hear Trump abandon his assertion, during his election campaign, that NATO has become obsolete. But they still worry about what they, and the rest of the world, have learned about his dealings with Russian officials, particularly his chummy session in the Oval Office with Russia’s foreign minister and its ambassador to the United States.
That meeting suggested that Trump fails to understand that Putin is no friend of the US and Europe, and that his overriding goal is to weaken NATO in order to expand Russia’s own influence in Europe. Putin certainly does not intend to use that influence to promote US interests or Western values.
NATO leaders in Europe are concerned that Trump will do there what his predecessor did in the Middle East. President Barack Obama distanced the US from its traditional allies – Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia – in favor of closer ties with Iran, their regional adversary. Obama justified his conciliatory policy toward Iran on the grounds that it would lead to friendlier, more restrained Iranian behavior. It did not: nor will Russia adopt a less aggressive, more peaceful foreign policy in Europe, regardless of what Trump says about or does for Putin.
Beyond reassurance on this crucial matter, NATO needs something else from Trump: the kind of leadership that US presidents have historically provided to the alliance. The return of a threat from Russia has created the need to upgrade NATO’s military forces so that the Kremlin will not be tempted to mount further attacks.
NATO’s European members, as Trump rightly noted in his campaign, have not paid their fair share of the cost of military modernization. And, frankly, they remain unlikely ever to spend as much as US officials believe they should. That was the pattern during the Cold War, too. Getting Europe to shoulder more of the burden will require, as it did during the Cold War, adroit prodding by the American president – delicately in public, firmly in private – and higher contributions by the US itself, which only the president can secure.
Summoning from the Europeans a greater collective effort for their common defense is all the more difficult today because NATO’s European members are divided in important ways. The eastern members, such as Poland and the Baltic states, take the Russian threat more seriously than western members, several of which, such as Germany, rely on Russia for supplies of natural gas.
In addition, many European countries are now divided internally, harboring populist movements that have little interest in collective defense against Russia and in some cases admire (and are even subsidized by) Putin’s regime. As during the Cold War, only the US is able to take the initiative in overcoming these divisions sufficiently to forge transatlantic policies that serve the interests of the alliance as a whole.
European officials know that NATO cannot function effectively without US leadership, whether or not they say so publicly. Trump will discover on his trip, if he has not already, that all his foreign counterparts will want something from him. What those who govern the NATO countries now want – or at least what they know they need – is US guidance, direction, and support.
American international leadership must come, as it has for more than a century, from the Oval Office. In the case of NATO, the kind of leadership that is required does not involve stirring speeches, and certainly not impetuous tweets. Instead, the US president’s task is to set goals that will make NATO stronger, more united, and better able to deal with the new threats it faces, establish direct relations with European leaders, and then coax, cajole, and sometimes bribe them to do what is necessary to reach those goals.
That is not a description of the style of leadership Trump has displayed thus far, either as a candidate or as president. But if his talks in Brussels persuade him of the need for such leadership, his first overseas trip could be a success both for him and for NATO.