“Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing,” then-presidential candidate Donald Trump mused in August, “if we actually got along with Russia and worked out some kind of deal where we go and knock the hell out of ISIS along with NATO and along with the countries that are in that area?” At other times, however, Trump publicly imagined himself engaged in a very different NATO initiative. Under this scenario, he would denounce America’s European allies as freeloaders and force them to accept a deal requiring them to pay a much bigger share of the alliance’s defense burden.
On first glance, these two initiatives don’t seem mutually exclusive, and Trump will be tempted to pursue both of them once he becomes president. But he’ll soon discover that he can’t have it both ways, and it is all too likely that his partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin will lead to the dramatic weakening of NATO.
To see the risks involved, suppose that Trump follows through on his idea of joining Putin in an all-out war in support of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Syria—as he put it, “Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS.”
As they announce their alliance in the Mideast, the two strongmen solemnly declare that they will also extend their détente to Eastern Europe, where military tensions have recently been escalating. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its air and naval forces have been engaging in a series of hostile incursions along the European frontier. In response, NATO has launched its own build-up—to the point where it will be placing St. Petersburg within firing distance of short-range missiles (that could carry nuclear warheads). Given their Mideastern partnership, it would only make sense for Putin and Trump to call a halt to this dangerous escalation, and announce their intention to engage in future confidence-building measures.