Next Monday, Donald Trump will meet with Vladimir Putin — alone.
This bodes ill. Since taking office, Trump has assiduously furthered Russia’s geopolitical ambitions — weakening our democratic allies and America itself.
By relentlessly targeting America’s friends, Trump advances Putin’s goal of undermining Western democracies while shattering their alliances. “Sometimes,” Trump proclaims, “our worst enemies are our so-called friends and allies.” Castigating historic trading partners, he says, “We’re like the piggy banks that everybody is robbing.” The European Union, he complains, “was set up to take advantage of the United States.” As for NATO, it’s “as bad as NAFTA.”
Are these newfound villains attacking our electoral processes, or aiming nuclear warheads at our mainland? Hardly. But such existential threats are either beneath Trump’s notice, or resolved by staging vapid media events with the manipulative autocrats who exploit his vanity and ignorance — particularly Putin, that virile object of his fascination.
Setting aside Trump’s pathological passion for dictators, his contempt for the American-led liberal democratic order is historically illiterate. America’s fortification of European democracies after World War II not only fed our unprecedented prosperity, but also created a shared security in our largely peaceful present without — Trump’s complaints notwithstanding — costing us much. And while humane values mean nothing to Trump, this cooperative system promoted democracy and respect for individual rights.
Trump loathes all this. To quote an underling, his message to allies is “We’re America, bitch.” Working with elected European leaders to advance common interests seemingly threatens Trump’s tenuous manhood.
The result evokes a disordered two-year-old knocking down an edifice painstakingly erected with someone else’s blocks. He tells President Emmanuel Macron that France should leave the EU. Instead of quiet diplomacy, he sends angry dunning letters to NATO allies. He refuses to condemn Putin’s brazen subversion of European elections. As though transfixed by his fondest fantasies of self, he praises burgeoning autocrats in Hungary and Poland who abridge the EU’s commitment to democracy.
But he reserves his deepest animus for Germany — the linchpin of a stable Europe — and the accomplished woman who leads it. He threatens to withdraw American troops from German soil. He falsifies Germany’s crime rate, and ridicules Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policies. He crows that Merkel is losing her political power. His belligerent trade war with the EU targets the auto industry vital to the German economy.
All this serves Putin’s master plan of a divided Europe and America that, among other things, will countenance Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Trump is doing for Putin what Putin cannot do for himself — destroying the alliances and institutions that have given America and the West unmatched geopolitical influence.
European leaders are reduced to hoping that Trump won’t inflict further damage at this week’s NATO meeting. Worse, they fear a summit sought by a diplomatically incompetent American president whose suspicious deference to the calculating Putin underscores Trump’s lack of a coherent strategy for upholding Western interests — or, ominously, any sign that he cares. Like Putin, Trump has no values; unlike Putin, he has no idea what he is doing — save, perhaps, pleasing Putin.
Predictably, Putin will recite a list of historic grievances, many directed at Barack Obama. The likelihood is that Trump will be mesmerized, not least because he shares Putin’s detestation for Obama.
Trump’s recent summit with Kim Jong Un presents an unnerving precedent. Seduced by vague promises of denuclearization from a state with an unbroken record of lies and subterfuge, Trump gave the North Korean a priceless propaganda victory, proclaiming the murderous Kim “honorable,” “funny,” “very smart,” and gifted with a “great personality.” Trump augmented this moronic flattery by canceling joint military exercises with South Korea. Fatuously infatuated with his imaginary deal-making prowess, Trump pronounced the nuclear risk terminated — after which American intelligence confirmed the regime’s clandestine augmentation of its nuclear capacities, and North Korea scorned America’s “gangster-ike demand for denuclearization.”
The lesson is inescapable. In eagerly meeting with Putin, Trump sees television ratings; Putin sees a pawn ripe, unwittingly or willingly, to serve Russia’s interests.
What does Putin want? To deepen America’s alienation from its allies. To divorce Trump from advisers skeptical of Russia. To gain Trump’s acquiescence in his annexation of Crimea and incursions in Ukraine, his tacit acceptance of Russia’s attacks on Western democracy, his agreement to leave Syria, and his recognition of Russia as a coequal global actor. To further tarnish America as an advocate for humanity and decency. To erode American sanctions against Russian malignancy.
Putin has every reason to hope.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.