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Opinion | In Two Summits, a Moment of Truth for Trump

Category: Diplomatic Relations,Politics

President Trump’s next two summits, first with NATO allies in Brussels, then with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, will either restore American global leadership or kill it off, depending on how he plays our hand.

Unity at NATO, followed by a firm encounter with Mr. Putin, would demonstrate American resolve to stand with allies and stand up to strategic competitors. Or Mr. Trump could squander all the power and leverage of the United States by abusing and dividing our allies, then lavishing praise and freebies on an autocrat he admires who is set on undermining our democracy and global position. It all depends which President Trump shows up in Brussels and Helsinki — the one his national security adviser says wants a strong NATO, or the man who regularly calls NATO “obsolete.”

Traditionally, an American president gains when he meets a Kremlin boss with the wind of allied unity at his back. If he uses the NATO meeting to coordinate his message to Moscow, he multiplies the impact by speaking for dozens of free countries, not just America. And a Trump-Putin summit is overdue. The mountain of problems we have with Russia requires leader-to-leader talks because Mr. Putin has neutered decision-making at all other levels of his government.

The Trump team, led on alliance issues by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, is poised to have a successful NATO summit if the president can take “yes” for an answer. The combined defense budget of NATO nations has grown by $14.4 billion since Mr. Trump took office (increases began under Barack Obama). All but one of 28 allies are increasing spending, and 26 are sending more troops to NATO missions. Sixteen are on track to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024, NATO’s target.

Rather than thrash allies, the president should celebrate this success, take credit for it, and accelerate bilateral work to help close remaining spending gaps. Other NATO achievements worth celebrating include two new military commands that will increase the readiness of alliance forces and speed deployments. These moves, directed against any further territorial ambitions Moscow may have, should strengthen Mr. Trump’s hand at Helsinki.

The leverage NATO gives Mr. Trump at the Putin summit will be wasted, however, if the message from Brussels mirrors the president’s presentation at the Group of 7 meeting last month: Allies are feckless free-riders, America doesn’t need them and it’s the planet’s autocrats who deserve our respect.

Mr. Putin, the biggest winner from any disunity in NATO, is counting on the second outcome. The only additional thing he needs to make his Helsinki meeting a success is money. Here, Mr. Trump is holding a hand nearly as strong as Ronald Reagan’s in 1982 — if he plays it right. Mr. Putin survives on a governance model that requires $60-per-barrel oil, total political control of his citizenry and a kleptocratic stranglehold on the economy. The reform Russia needs is impossible without more power-sharing than he will allow.

A population that he once intoxicated with military deployments in Crimea and Syria now cares most about improvements in Russia’s hospitals, according to recent polls. And after four years of those costly deployments, along with sanctions and low-to-zero growth, Mr. Putin’s government is broke. He has run through half of the sovereign wealth Russia saved in the oil boom of his first two terms as president, starting in 2000; the cost of living has increased for most Russians by 15 percent or more; and last week, the Russian Duma had to raise value-added taxes and the pension age to increase revenue.

Mr. Putin, therefore, needs more from the United States and the West than we need from him. He needs sanctions relief. He needs direct foreign investment and trade. He needs the New Start nuclear accord extended when it expires in 2021 so he doesn’t have to pay for a new generation of weapons. He wants the United States out of Syria so that Russian forces can take over the eastern oil fields we now protect, and use income from those fields to pay for the war, among other motives. He knows that if Russia’s financial situation doesn’t improve, he could be presiding over a 21st-century “Upper Volta with rockets,” as Dean Acheson once called the Soviet Union.

This gives Mr. Trump considerable leverage in Helsinki if he plays our hand strongly, as Reagan would have. Rather than ceding Crimea, forgiving Mr. Putin’s interference in our elections and offering sanctions relief free, Mr. Trump — with NATO at his back — can make American diplomacy great again if he demonstrates to Mr. Putin that normal relations with us require civilized global behavior by Russia. The alternative — a NATO in tatters and a re-energized Mr. Putin — would leave America weaker and Mr. Trump the loser in the great power competition he himself has declared.


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