The King of Chaos
Donald Trump heads to Europe next week, where he will meet with NATO leaders in Brussels before heading to Helsinki for a much-anticipated summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The NATO meeting comes on the heels of Trump’s bull-in-a-china shop presence at last month’s G-7 gathering in Canada, where the president alienated and angered longtime European allies (and his Canadian host, Justin Trudeau) with his “America first” approach to trade and tariffs. That resulted in a three-front trade war with Canada, Europe and China that benefits American steel manufacturers and few others.
At the NATO conference, Trump is expected to continue to bang the drum over the issue of defense spending, lambasting his European partners who have failed to meet an agreed-upon contribution target of 2 percent gross domestic product per year while decrying what he believes is the exorbitant burden placed on the U.S. for securing the defense of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
“We’re paying on anywhere between 70 and 90 percent to protect Europe and that’s fine,” Trump told a crowd of supporters in Montana this week. “Of course,” he added, “they kill us on trade.”
This Jekyll and Hyde approach toward Europe has heads spinning on both sides of the Atlantic. The trade tariffs Trump is imposing on his European and Canadian allies are derived from executive authority, which allow him to act in the interest of American national security. In short, in Trump’s world, America’s NATO allies represent a threat worthy of sanctions. At the same time, Trump has pressured NATO into increasing its spending by $33 billion to bolster its defensive capabilities in the face of a resurgent Russia, whose actions in the Ukraine have Poland and the Baltic nations fearing for their security.
And now Trump is going to head to Helsinki, where he seeks to cement a burgeoning friendship with Putin. In Finland, Russia is seeking an easing of sanctions, which would require Trump to turn a blind eye to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. For its part, the U.S. hopes to get Russian cooperation on nuclear proliferation issues, including North Korea and Iran, security assurances regarding both Syria and the Ukraine (sans Crimea), and some progress on bringing a halt to what Trump has called “an arms race” between Moscow and Washington.
If you’re Angela Merkel, Trump’s words and actions must have you scratching your head. He told the crowd in Montana this about the German chancellor: “We’re protecting you and it means a lot more to you than protecting us, because I don’t know how much protection we get by protecting you.” She could only wish to have the kind of substantive discussions Trump is preparing for with his Russian counterpart.
The timing of the Helsinki Trump-Putin summit is odd on two grounds. The first is the competing meeting with NATO. At best, the meetings in Brussels and Helsinki will cancel each other out. At worst, Helsinki will trump Brussels, with all that portends for the future of a NATO alliance already reeling from Trump’s criticism and talk of a trade war.
Perhaps even more stunning is Trump’s utter disregard for the hostile domestic political environment in Washington that under normal circumstances would seem to have made it impossible for him to move forward with plans to meet with Putin. Just this past week, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence accused the Russian leader of trying to tip the scale in favor of Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
It is the legal and political realities bearing down on Trump at home, however, that may have provided the catalyst for this summit to take place at this time. He is under tremendous political pressure because of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russian government officials in the 2016 U.S. election.
Trump’s legal team has implied Mueller’s probe harms U.S. national security by interfering with the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy. The Helsinki summit will lend credibility to this argument, and in doing so increase the pressure on Mueller to bring his investigation to an end. The Trump team can claim that with U.S.-Russia relations back on track, the Mueller probe is little more than politically motivated interference in legitimate affairs of state. Midterm elections are looming in November, and Trump’s relationship with Russia will certainly be an issue. Even if little of substance emerges from it, the Helsinki summit could very well help turn the Russia problem to Trump’s advantage.
The Helsinki summit is but the latest iteration of the wrecking ball for what passes as American diplomacy under Trump. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the U.S. has confirmed its withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), “a cesspool of political bias,” according to the U.S. envoy to the U.N., Nikki Haley, employing language more vitriolic than even that which accompanied Washington’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal a few weeks earlier.
The U.S. has hardly been alone in its criticism of the UNHRC, and there is certainly a separate debate to be had about the council’s effectiveness. But the more important dimension to the decision to leave the UNHRC, flagged last year when Haley announced the U.S. would be reviewing its membership, is that it marks another step in America’s disengagement under Trump from multilateral organizations and agreements that his administration thinks do nothing to advance U.S. interests.
These are not auspicious times for multilateral organizations, or for multilateralism more generally. The story of the seven decades since the end of the Second World War is, from a Western perspective, the story of the establishment of a rules-based international order and an array of multilateral international bodies, such as the U.N. and the World Trade Organization, aimed at enforcing those rules and peacefully resolving disputes and crises, and alliances such as NATO, to deter aggression from the Soviet Union and Russia. The U.S. has played the leading role in that system, but that leadership has been taken for granted by America’s allies, according to Trump, hence his aggressively revisionist approach to virtually every aspect of trade and foreign policy.
Caught in the crossfire of Trump’s trade policy is the World Trade Organization (WTO), which the U.S. seems not only to be ignoring, in its pursuit of trade sanctions and tariffs that fall outside the organization’s framework of rules and regulations, but also undermining by blocking the appointment of replacement members of the seven-member panel that oversees resolution of trade disputes. Trump seems hellbent on destroying the WTO’s core function, the means by which the rules and principles laid out when the organization was established in 1994 can be enforced. This provides a level of certainty in international trade relations from which the global economy has broadly benefited. That certainty has now been destroyed, with the U.S. simultaneously embarking on a policy of imposing unilateral trade sanctions under the guise of obscure U.S. trade law, thereby providing a pretext for the imposition of protectionist tariffs in contravention of WTO principles.
The actions of the Trump administration in this regard have potentially huge consequences. If the WTO, its rules and its dispute resolution mechanism become meaningless, there really is nothing to prevent an all-out trade war between the U.S. and China, with all that would portend for the global economy. Nor, in this eventuality, would recourse to the WTO be an option for the European Union to blunt the impact of any extraterritorial sanctions the U.S. imposes in connection with its anticipated withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
Whether through his simultaneous critique of NATO and embrace of Russia, or the policy of withdrawal and disruption that governs America’s multilateral relationships in the U.N. and WTO, Trump seems to relish his role as the “King of Chaos,” challenging the established world order by simply tearing it apart. This “my way or the highway” approach plays exceptionally well to Trump’s domestic political base and seems timed in part to influence the upcoming midterm elections.
The Helsinki summit is but the latest manifestation of what has become a trend in unilateralist, protectionist “America First” policies. In the short term, these policies seem to be playing to Trump’s advantage both on the domestic front, where the Democrats struggle to cobble together a political response to the president’s words and deeds, and globally, as America under Trump rewrites the rules of the game that have governed global interaction for more than 70 years.
For the moment, it looks like advantage Trump. The risk, however, is that at some point people, organizations and governments will choose structure over chaos and build a new framework of global interaction that does not include the United States in the singular leadership position it enjoys today.
In his effort to “Make America Great Again,” Trump is transforming what was once an indispensable nation on the international stage into something the world will learn to ignore. Ever the domestic political animal, living for the moment with no true sense of history or strategic vision, Trump may see his approach get him through one or even two terms in office. But America is far greater than one man, and when his time is up, the “King of Chaos” will have left a trail of destroyed relationships and bad feelings from which his successor, or successors, may never be able to fully recover.