Though I wrote about the particulars yesterday afternoon, the picture only fully crystallized for me this afternoon. President Trump’s visit to Brussels/Europe wasn’t just another grab bag of impulsive aggression and gaffes. It wasn’t scattershot. It was quite clearly focused on destabilizing and perhaps eviscerating the NATO Alliance and somewhat secondarily, but relatedly, the European Union. This has been the strategic goal of Russia and before it the Soviet Union for decades. The sum total of everything that happened on this trip casts the entire Trump/Russia story in a decidedly more ominous light.
And the light was already quite ominous.
There are plenty of theories as to why President Trump might want to destabilize our alliance with our European allies and upend the global liberal internationalist order. But that he wants to do that seems basically beyond question at this point. His still largely unexplored and in many ways inexplicable relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia is just the most viable explanation. On virtually every other issue he is almost infinitely malleable and susceptible to blandishments and praise. Except this one. Here he remains fixed on True North.
Trump’s trip itself was an interesting illustration of the moment. His visit to Saudi Arabia went reasonably well on its own terms. Saudi is of course one of the most pre-modern states on earth, a large and vastly wealthy country owned and run as a private estate by a multigenerational family. Think about it. Though the House of Saud goes back more than two centuries, Saudi Arabia is a country based on one man – ibn Saud (1875-1953) – taking over most of Arabia, fortuitously finding oil, keeping the wealth for himself and his family and running the country, as I said, like a private estate, with virtually all the wealth kept within his family and their top backers. It is the ur-kleptocracy. You might as well call it Trumpistan.
Saudi Arabia is an important country. We should nurture good relations with the Saudis. But – years of Muslim bashing aside – Trump’s genuine enjoyment of his visit and fondness for his hosts is a wild contrast with the disdain and aggression he showed to our core allies in Europe. It is also an example of his infinite malleability. One might make similar contrasts with Philippines President Duterte, for whom Trump also seems to have a great fondness. Remember how China was Trump’s other big bogeyman during the campaign. They’re now fast friends. Trump likes leaders who don’t lead democratic polities.
Again, let’s go back to Brussels and NATO. Trump now has around him a number of advisors who if they are reasonably criticized on various grounds hold conventional pro-NATO views on Europe. Defense Secretary Mattis appears to be the most important of these. McMaster, Powell and others figure in the mix too. They apparently worked on him closely to make a clear statement of honoring Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – our commitment to come to the defense of any NATO member threatened with external aggression. It was even apprently in the speech he was supposed to give. But Trump nixed it and insisted on these entirely fraudulent entirely fraudulent claims of the Europeans owing the US vast sums of money.
Again, he’s malleable, a veritable changeling on everything but this. This isn’t a decision that’s the President’s to make or a judgement call. It’s a binding treaty commitment every President since Truman has lived under and honored.
Whether Vladimir Putin has something on Donald Trump or somehow has him in his pay hardly matters. If he doesn’t, he apparently doesn’t need to do since Trump insists on doing more or less exactly what Putin would want of him entirely on his own. Does this sound hyperbolic. Yes, it absolutely does. I’m even surprised I’m writing it. But look at the evidence before us. A simple statement on a decades old security commitment is the simplest, most pro-forma thing to do. And yet he refuses. Again and again.
Something is very wrong here. But we don’t know yet its origins of where it’s taking us.