COMMENTARY: Will Trump choose Russia over NATO?


For once, it seems like President Donald Trump isn’t interested in winning. Everything is in place for a great NATO summit — defense spending is up, deterrence in Eastern Europe is strong and a united alliance will set a firm tone for Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Everything seems set. Everything, of course, except that last part.

While Trump could use a successful NATO summit to hold Putin to account for his misdeeds in Ukraine and U.S. election interference, he appears more interested in seeking to improve relations with Russia, even if it’s at NATO’s expense.

For years, Trump has loudly complained about European allies failing to spend enough on defense. As president, he claimed Germany and other allies “owe vast sums of money” and used his first meeting with NATO leaders to chastise them for shortchanging defense.

Allies took note. Non-U.S. NATO defense spending has gone up — by $87 billion since 2014, when NATO leaders first committed to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense within a decade. By 2024, at least 18 allies will have met that target, more than triple the number that did so in 2014. Allies are also investing better, with more than half already meeting the target of spending at least 20 percent of their budgets on major equipment, and all others committed to doing so by 2024.

In addition, NATO has bolstered defense and deterrence in countries closest to Russia. European and American forces are now stationed on the territory of the three Baltic states and Poland. At the summit, allied leaders will also commit to deploying 30 battalions, 30 air squadrons, and 30 warships within 30 days, greatly increasing the speed by which NATO could respond in an emergency. New commands will help safeguard the Atlantic and speed reinforcements to the front lines, further bolstering NATO’s capabilities.

These are all major steps designed to strengthen NATO defenses, unity and resolve. Trump could take credit for these improvements, which reflect a determination by allies to demonstrate their continued commitment to do their part for collective defense. A successful NATO summit, moreover, would strengthen Trump’s hand when he meets with Putin a few days later — making clear that NATO will defend its interests and continue to oppose Russian efforts to divide the alliance.

Trump, however, doesn’t seem interested in embracing these successes. Last month, he sent scathing letters to his NATO counterparts, warning them of a “growing frustration” in the United States with NATO. “The United States is increasingly unwilling to ignore this alliance’s failure to meet shared security challenges,” Trump wrote in one such letter. But his focus was on defense spending, not on how allies have long demonstrated their commitment to meet these shared challenges — from deploying troops to Afghanistan to bolstering the fight against Islamic State to boosting deterrence in the Baltics.

“NATO is as bad as NAFTA,” Trump told his G-7 counterparts last month, underscoring that he saw both as bad deals for America. More European defense spending may make NATO a better deal, but only because it would allow the U.S. to then do less. Earlier this year, Trump expressed interest in removing U.S. troops from Germany, believing the cost of keeping them there was too high. If he sees value in NATO beyond burden sharing, he has yet to make that clear.

A burden-sharing debate will be highly divisive in NATO. Allies are willing to spend more, but they see the value of NATO above all in the strong commitment all of them, notably the United States, make to the common defense. Any questioning of that commitment, as happened the last time NATO leaders met, would split the alliance.

Trump may not care about such divisions. After all, he cared little about dividing the G-7 last month. His focus instead will be on his next meeting with Putin. Trump has long sought to demonstrate that good relations with Russia are possible, and he may well put more stock on that positive outcome than on keeping NATO strong and united.

That would be a grave mistake. A divided NATO is something Moscow has long sought — both during the Cold War and since. It’s been a key part of Putin’s strategy for over a decade.

Trump can arrive in Helsinki as the leader of a strong, united NATO and confront the Russian leader from a position of strength. But if he leaves a deeply divided NATO behind when he departs Brussels, he will operate from a much weaker position. The choice is all Trump’s to make.

Ivo H. Daalder is a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. James M. Lindsay is senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations. They’re co-authors of “The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership,” out in October. Their column was published by the Chicago Tribune.