White House

Why Putin may be the real winner of Trump’s Europe foray

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and President Donald Trump during a ceremony to unveil artifacts from the World Trade Center and Berlin Wall for the new NATO headquarters, Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Brussels.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and President Donald Trump during a ceremony to unveil artifacts from the World Trade Center and Berlin Wall for the new NATO headquarters, Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Brussels. AP

Despite a White House description of President Donald Trump’s recent NATO conference appearance as “incredible” and “historic,” experts are wondering if the only clear winner from the trip was Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The claim that the NATO visit was a rousing success overplays what were incremental adjustments, and ignores deep losses. But more than that, it helped create doubt among longtime allies that the United States remains what it has been since the alliance was formed 68 years ago, a firm friend.

As Bobo Lo, a Russian expert and author on Russian policy, put it, the meeting in Brussels “was everything the Kremlin could have hoped for. Trans-Atlantic solidarity is unraveling, and not only is the United States losing the ability to lead the Western world, the president doesn’t seem much to care. That meeting was a pretty unequivocal win for Putin.”

Which gets at a fundamental point that underpins the current investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and possible collusion by members of Trump’s campaign team: What, exactly, does Putin want in all of this?

Lo and other experts agree that the Russian president’s desires were primarily domestic. After a dip in his popularity – and protests for which he blamed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 – Putin’s popularity has rebounded, thought to be based on the general good vibe of hosting an Olympics and the national pride he encouraged by invading and occupying Crimea.

But he’s also had goals outside of Russia, hoping to weaken NATO and the European Union, which he sees as Russia’s primary threats. A chaotic United States and Europe serve that purpose. That also has a domestic benefit, from Putin’s view: Russians will see dysfunction in Western democracies as a sign that there isn’t really a better political approach than Putin’s.

“There was talk that Putin was hoping for an American leader with whom he could have a better relationship, and saw that in Trump,” Lo said. “But I’m not at all sure he cared so much about that side of things.”

Even before Trump’s foreign trip, cracks were showing in Western solidarity. Since November, German Chancellor Angela Merkel often has been referred to as “the new leader of the free world.”

Those cracks have widened since Trump’s European tour. Merkel called the G-7 meeting “unsatisfactory” and noted in its aftermath that Germany and Europe would be looking more to China. “China has become a more important and strategic partner. We are living in times of global uncertainty and see that we have a responsibility to expand our partnership in all the different areas and to push for a world order based on law,” she said.

She included the United States with Russia as nations with whom Germany would seek to remain on friendly terms – a major demotion for the U.S.

The criticism after Trump’s decision Thursday to leave the Paris Climate Agreement has only intensified matters.

“The times in which we could completely rely on others are to a certain extent, over,” Merkel said at a campaign rally last Sunday. “I’ve experienced that over the last few days. We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”

And while she added that would include “friendship with the United States” her meaning was clear to Germans.

That view, of course, differs wildly from the view from inside the Trump administration. White House spokesman Sean Spicer on Tuesday called the visit part of an “incredible, historic trip.” He noted that the country had “never seen before at this point in a presidency such sweeping reassurance of American interest.”

The president, Spicer said, “boldly stood up for American taxpayers and our common defense by calling on the other NATO countries to pay their fair share” and that “the member states unanimously agreed on those two priorities, and the Secretary General was extremely complimentary of the president’s work to dramatically strengthen the Alliance by getting member states to increase their contributions.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appeared to back him up.

“We have already made progress,” he said. But he also made it clear that progress in defense spending predates both Trump’s presidency, and candidacy. It all went back to a NATO Summit in Wales in 2014.

“With billions more invested in defense last year, after a long period of decline, today, we decided to develop annual national plans, setting out how allies intend to meet the defense investment pledge we made together in 2014,” he said in a closing press conference after Trump and other NATO leaders spent two days together in Brussels.

Those national plans, however, had already been called for in 2014. In fact, the agreement that came out of that summit called on nations to “reverse the trend of declining defense budgets . . . to further a more balanced sharing of costs and responsibilities.” It stated nations should “aim to move towards the 2 percent (of Gross National Product) guideline within a decade with a view to meeting their NATO Capability Targets and filling NATO’s capability shortfalls.”

This was exactly what was called for during the recent meeting. In other words, the recent meeting was only historic for those who don’t pay much attention to history.

Lisa Samp served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council as director for NATO and European strategic affairs, and in that position coordinated U.S. policy for the 2014 summit. Her take?

“There’s nothing groundbreaking here,” she said. “The 2014 agreement was a statement of intent. What we just saw was an agreement to adopt a work plan.”

But, she noted, the work plans in some cases are already under way. Germany believes they released their plan in mid-2016, called a white paper, that noted their obligation to “help meet current and future security and humanitarian challenges” and discussed a path (widely criticized as unlikely by German politicians) toward the NATO goal of two percent.

“What we just heard is not a new thing,” she said. “It’s a step toward implementing an old thing.”

But even that was called for the in the 2014 agreement: “Allies will review national progress annually. This will be discussed at future Defense Ministerial meetings and reviewed by Heads of State and Government at future Summits.”

In the original report, nations aimed to increase defense spending by 2024. Last weekend, Stoltenberg noted there had already been progress on that front.

“This is not a problem figured out by Donald Trump, and this was not a solution created by Donald Trump,” Samp said. “I wouldn’t call it historic.”

At least not in a good way.

“A lot of people who watch the trans-Atlantic relationship were horrified,” she said. Trump was “critical of allies, and soft on Russia.” He didn’t commit on Crimea or Article 5, which calls for “collective defense” inside the treaty organization. She said he’s the first president since Harry S Truman not to make a commitment to Article 5.

“Russia got exactly what they were looking for,” she said. “Putin can only look back on that meeting and laugh.”

She used Trump’s statement on NATO funding as an example. Trump said “this is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States. And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years.”

Samp said that shows either an intentional or sloppy misunderstanding of how the funding works. Most of the money Trump is talking about is what nations spend on their own national defense.

Spicer’s comments imply that if Germany and the Netherlands spent more money on defense, the United States would spend less. But as Samp explained, the United States decides what it must spend to protect its own interests.

And while there is little support for Spicer’s notion that “Europe and other NATO countries” are responding to “the call that he has so eloquently put out over the last several – well over a year” there is agreement that NATO is stronger if each member is stronger. That, however, is not a new notion.

Michael O’Hanlon, a U.S. defense strategy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., said there is a long history of similar statements.

“I think there is a modest move toward greater European burden sharing that Trump is building on – I don’t mind seeing him share the credit for it and don’t think that’s inappropriate,” he said. “But he shouldn’t get hopes too high, as I doubt it will go that far.”

Presidents before Trump have seen similar pledges. As O’Hanlon said: NATO “is the biggest pain in the butt organization ever – and also the greatest military and strategic alliance in human history. Maybe those two points are related, because part of the strength of the alliance and part of its durability derive from not trying to straitjacket allies into too many specific decisions or policies.”

Still, counting on much change is probably a mistake.

“NATO makes lots of plans and lots of promises,” O’Hanlon said. “I’m more interested, at least on questions of burden sharing, in what it actually does.”

Schofield was McClatchy’s Europe correspondent, based in Berlin, until October 2016.

Matthew Schofield: 202-383-6066, @mattschodcnews