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 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 to spend more money on Nato. And when he went to Moscow, he declared 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 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.”
Let’s pick this all apart and try to make sense of it. Trump’s betrayal of the US intelligence services was a 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 US intelligence professionals. Within a day he had been forced to admit there had indeed been Russian meddling in the 2016 election and backtracked on his claim that the US was to blame for the heightened tension with Russia, tweeting “We’re all to blame.” He is right about that.
If the US had treated Russia less brutally in the ’90s, nurturing the fragile new Russian democracy, 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, but its economy is only the size of Italy’s and it could not sustain a prolonged military confrontation with Nato.
But 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. Which would you prefer?