Who is the leader of the free world?

The NATO summit in Brussels is less than two weeks away, and apprehension is growing among America’s European allies. There is no shortage of good “deliverables” in the pipeline for the July 11 meeting. But after the bitter recriminations at the G-7 summit in Canada, allies are wondering whether they will be in for nothing more than a tongue lashing by President Trump over insufficient defense spending, further inflaming transatlantic divisions over trade, the Iran deal, and other issues.

The apprehension is even greater now that Trump will hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki immediately after the NATO summit. Allies do not doubt the importance of dialogue with Moscow, yet worry that the Trump will use the same playbook with Putin as he used in Singapore with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un by cozying up to another strongman, staying silent on values, and offering one-sided concessions that could deal another blow to allied unity.

{mosads}Gifts to Putin could include a unilateral curtailment of United States and NATO “war games” in Europe by accepting Putin’s false claims that these defensive exercises are “provocative” as he did with Kim in Singapore. Trump could lift some of the punitive steps taken to punish Russia for its interference in the U.S. elections, such as the closure of the Russia espionage compounds on Maryland’s eastern shore.

Russian pundits are predicting that Trump will effectively accept the annexation of Crimea in return for vague promises by Putin to curb Iranian influence in Syria. This would undermine commitments that Crimea remains part of Ukraine. By acquiescing to Russia’s aggression, Trump would undermine one of the main pillars of the international order that the United States created after World War II. Although Congress would likely refuse to lift sanctions on Russia, acceptance that “Crimea is Russia” would be seen as betrayal of America’s friends and principles. Tactical unpredictability can be useful, but strategic unreliability is self-defeating.

A year ago, Europeans, as well as most Americans, would have never thought that these nightmare scenarios could come to pass on the world stage. Indeed, in Warsaw last July, Trump conveyed a much more positive vision for the Atlantic alliance. His speech was addressed to the people of Poland, but his message was a powerful expression of American leadership and a reaffirmation of Western values that resonated across all of the countries of NATO and the European Union.

In Warsaw, Trump unequivocally reaffirmed Article V, the commitment by every NATO member to come to the defense of any ally under armed attack. He declared that U.S. policy in Europe went beyond self-defense. The United States was determined to work with its democratic allies to preserve the West and to protect our security and our way of life in the face of enemies that seek to “test our will, undermine our confidence, and challenge our interests.” He underscored in unequivocal terms the importance of allies to U.S. security when he said, “There is nothing like this community of nations. The world has never known anything like it. We must have the desire and the courage to preserve it in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it.”

Does Trump still stand by those words? Will he go to the NATO summit as the leader and defender of the West and of the free world as he did in Warsaw? Or will he continue to castigate America’s allies and reinforce the impression he intends to abdicate U.S. leadership in favor of closer ties with an authoritarian Russia? I hope he chooses the first course. In a turbulent world, and facing a revisionist Russia and China, we need a strong NATO more than ever. The summit should be the occasion for Trump to reunify the alliance and chart its course for the future.

Yes, allies who are not on track to fulfill their pledge to increase defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product should be criticized, but this should not be the sole focus in Brussels. Instead, Trump should focus on galvanizing the allies to invest in the capabilities and new technologies that NATO will need if its defense and deterrence are to remain credible in a world of cyberwarfare and artificial intelligence.

Trump should press the allies to increase their commitments of forces to NATO’s counterterrorism and stability missions in Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East. He should lay out his plans for his meeting with Putin and seek advice from allies, since the best way to engage with Putin is from a position of strength, and that comes with a unified alliance.

A divisive NATO summit, on the other hand, and the growing estrangement of the United States from Europe that would result, would be a giveaway to Putin. His Russia seeks to divide the West, undermine NATO, and discredit the values of democracy, individual liberty, and rule of law, on which the alliance was founded. A NATO in decline helps Putin to continue his hybrid war on the West.

President Trump loves to surprise. Let us hope that he can swing in a positive direction at NATO, pivot off a successful summit to press Putin to change his aggressive course, and claim vindication over his critics.

Alexander Vershbow is a distinguished fellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He is a former NATO deputy secretary general and a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and NATO.

Tags Donald Trump Foreign policy Global Affairs National security Vladimir Putin

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