It’s Not (Quite) As Bad As It Seems
In a particularly bad week for wrecking behaviour, Donald Trump trashed the NATO summit, declared the European Union a “foe”, undermined Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempts to get a ‘soft’ Brexit for Britain, sucked up to the Russians and betrayed his own intelligence services. But his actions made it clear that the NATO alliance is of limited relevance and that a new military confrontation with the Russians would be pointless folly.
He didn’t actually say either of those things last week (although he has said them both in the past). But despite the usual blizzard of off-the-cuff, contradictory Trumpian statements, a couple of truths did become obvious.
One is that Trump is Russia’s man in the White House. It is not clear what kind of hold Moscow has on him, but it clearly has one. The other is that there is almost no military dimension to the ‘Russian threat’ in Europe, so NATO does not need to spend more money.
Trump likes to sound tough. “Get ready, Russia, because (American missiles) will be coming, nice and new and smart!” he tweeted over a transient crisis in Syria three months ago. After last week’s NATO summit he claimed to have bullied the Europeans into spending much more on defence (against the Russian threat, of course).
But he never fired those missiles although the Russians didn’t back down. He didn’t really get any new promises from the Europeans last week to spend more money on NATO. And when he went to Moscow on Sunday, he declared that America was to blame for the poor state of US-Russian relations.
After a two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin with only translators present, Trump announced that he accepted Putin’s denials about Russian attempts to use social media to influence the 2016 US election. “They (the US intelligence services) think it’s Russia,” Trump said. “President Putin just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Now, let’s pick this all apart and try to make sense of it. Trump’s betrayal of the American intelligence services was a natural and necessary part of his campaign to discredit them, because he fears that they have or will discover evidence that links him to the Russian intervention in the US election.
There was a huge backlash in the US because even Trump’s own supporters were dismayed to see him value the Russian dictator’s words more highly than those of American intelligence professionals. Within a day he had been forced to admit, for the first time, that there had indeed been Russian meddling in the US election process in 2016.
He also had to backtrack on his claim that the United States was to blame for the heightened tension with Russia, tweeting that “We’re all to blame” and that he held “both countries responsible.” But actually, he was right about that the first time.
If the United States had treated the badly wounded post-Soviet Russia less brutally in the 1990s, nurturing the fragile new Russian democracy instead of taking all the Eastern European countries into NATO and pushing the alliance’s military frontier right up to the former Soviet border, there might never have been support in Russia for an aggrieved nationalist like Putin.
It’s too late to fix that now, but Russia is still not a major military threat. It has lots of modern tanks and missiles, because that’s what nationalist leaders do, but its economy is only the size of Italy’s and it could not sustain a prolonged military confrontation with NATO. That’s why Putin concentrates on non-military initiatives like his interference in the 2016 US election (and apparently in Britain’s 2017 Brexit referendum as well).
So it makes perfectly good sense for NATO’s European members to spend 2% or less of their resources on defence. NATO is really about defending Europe, and Europe doesn’t need much defending.
The good news is that though the populists and ultra-nationalists are on the rise in the West (including Russia), raw military power still plays a minor role in the relations of the great powers. Hacking and the other digital dark arts are playing a much bigger role, and it is proving hard to get them under control. But which would you prefer?