Donald Trump’s scolding of NATO allies, his digs at Britain’s prime minister, and his dismissal of investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election as a “rigged witch hunt” even though he knew Russian intelligence officers were about to be indicted back home for messing with American democracy—all right before meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland—have revived a long-running narrative: The president of the United States, wittingly or unwittingly, is doing Russia’s bidding.
“I’m not ready to say that our president is a Russian agent, but I have an agent, and he doesn’t do as much for me as Trump does for Russia,” the comedian Stephen Colbert joked. A more serious argument goes that Trump is undermining not just NATO, but the whole post–World War II “Western order: our security relationships, our trade relationships, our special friendships with the U.K., Canada, Germany, and institutions like EU, WTO, UN,” as the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote. “This is Putin’s dream.”
But if this is Putin’s dream, is it more of a nightmare? Whatever Trump’s intentions, U.S.–Russia relations are arguably at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. And many of Trump’s policies have intensified the confrontation. In Brussels this past week, for example, Trump did indeed place heavy strain on NATO, whose main mission is to deter and defend against Russia, by threatening that the United States will “go its own way” if the military alliance’s members don’t spend more on defense. But then those members reaffirmed their commitments to do just that while also continuing to encourage Russia’s neighbors Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. The result of all the drama at the NATO summit, in other words, was at least in monetary terms a more powerful military bloc that could soon extend its reach further along Russia’s borders—precisely what Putin has identified as “a direct threat to Russian security.”