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Trump in Brussels: The Story So Far

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We need a formal name for the notion that, over time, Trump’s behavior tends toward being indistinguishable from that of someone working on behalf of Moscow. It seems like more than a corollary or variant of Poe’s law. But I’m not sure whom to attribute it to.

That’s the conclusion that a friend of mine and I just reached in light of the reports coming out of the NATO summit. You may know that Trump opened with a “tirade” over Germany’s desire to build a second pipeline to transport Russian natural gas via the Baltic Sea. The Trump administration has already made this an issue in trade discussions, as it wants to export American liquified natural gas to Europe. A second pipeline would introduce more competition. There are legitimate economic and foreign-policy issues here—and the European Union is currently blocking progress on the pipeline—but Trump’s truculent linkage of the issue to US-German security cooperation just underscores European concerns. That, and his particular language, comes across as simple deflection. For instance:

“It’s very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia where we’re supposed to be guarding against Russia and Germany goes out and pays billions and billions of dollars a year to Russia,” Trump said before meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday morning.

Trump pressed on: “If you look at it, Germany is a captive of Russia, because they supply — they got rid of their coal plants, got rid of their nuclear, they’re getting so much of the oil and gas from Russia. I think it’s something NATO has to look at.”

Conservative media, as to be expected, plays this as Trump actually caring about Germany being ‘tough on Russia.’ Which conveniently ignores what Trump’s been telling crowds of Redhats, as well as the open secret that Trump would love to lift sanctions on Russia. Jonathan Chait gets it exactly right—Trump is successfully turning his base against NATO and toward Russia. So Republicans can grasp at these kinds of straws, but they do so while their own leader makes NATO a subject of partisan polarization. If you’re a competitor of the United States, this constitutes a remarkably welcome development.

And Trump’s “you’re the puppet” line against Germany isn’t the only way in which he seems to be trying to sabotage the NATO summit—just as he did the G7 at Charlevoix. Trump also told NATO allies that we doesn’t want them to meet their 2% targets; he wants them to allocate 4% of their GDP to defense spending. It’s no wonder that European analysts are deeply concerned. It seems like Trump is trying to engineer an environment in which he can justify unilateral concessions to Putin, or even lay the groundwork for invoking Article 13 of the NATO treaty, which is the mechanisms for withdrawal. The first seems plausible, the second like a long-tail risk. But we also know that Trump wants to withdraw from the World Trade Organization (WTO), and you can’t help but wonder if Trump will push this hard the next time the US loses a case there. In other words, whatever his motivation, the evidence continues to mount that Trump wants to burn it all down. If he does, he’s certainly laying the groundwork for doing so.

Perhaps, in the end, Trump’s hardball strategy will pay off in the form of concessions from allies and adversaries. But it’s difficult to see outcomes that would justify the downside risks. And here we need to ask ourselves the question: is there any indicator that Trump has the ability to make good international deals? That we can explain Trump’s behavior with the assumption—assuming nothing actively sinister is at work—that he has any idea what he’s doing? Recent experience on the nonproliferation front—abandoning the JCPOA while apparently getting played by Pyongyang—hardly inspires confidence.

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