Donald Trump’s flurry of offhand remarks and abrupt zingers on Russia – praising Vladimir Putin, dismissing NATO – have jolted the world, not to mention the U.S. presidential campaign.
With Russia’s behavior rattling nerves in the U.S. and elsewhere, Trump is accused of cozying up to a “dictator.” Of threatening the very underpinnings of America’s relationship with Europe. And of naiveté.
Some of the GOP presidential nominee’s goals are consistent with long-held U.S. views, many experts say. The idea of fostering U.S.-Russian cooperation isn’t outlandish. After all, Hillary Clinton tried to “reset” relations with Russia when she was secretary of state. Also, past U.S. administrations of both parties have quietly complained that other NATO members should pay their share to the alliance.
It’s what Trump is willing to do to achieve those goals and the way he expresses his views that have shocked many foreign policy experts.
The notion of refusing to defend NATO allies who don’t pay their bills, for example, or of buddying up to Putin despite his aggressive stances is jarring to Democrats and Republicans alike. And it’s on the minds of foreign leaders.
“We’re going to talk about NATO and Russia,” Secretary of State John Kerry said as he met Saturday with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in Paris. Kerry wouldn’t address Trump’s comments specifically, but said he would discuss anything Ayrault wanted to talk about “that has to do with our relationship.”
On Wednesday, Trump offered this vision for rosier U.S.-Russian relations: “I would treat Vladimir Putin firmly but there’s nothing that I can think of that I’d rather do than have Russia friendly – as opposed to the way they are right now – so that we can go and knock out ISIS together along with other people and with other countries,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with people?”
Trump praised the Russian president for having “better leadership qualities” than President Barack Obama. Trump said he would consider lifting sanctions against Moscow and recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
As for NATO, Trump said the basic idea of the alliance was OK but that “it’s got to be modernized. And countries that we’re protecting have to pay what they’re supposed to be paying.”
Days earlier, he suggested he would decide whether to protect NATO allies against Russian aggression based on whether they had “fulfilled their obligations” financially.
His invitation for Russia to help unearth the deleted emails from Clinton’s State Department years appeared to violate a cardinal rule against foreign meddling in U.S. politics.
Foreign policy experts of all stripes “are left slack-jawed” by Trump’s pronouncements, said Derek Chollet, a senior adviser at the German Marshall Fund and former Pentagon official in the Obama administration.
“He looks at the world solely through the prism of business transactions, talking about allies as if they’re Atlantic City contractors that he can bilk,” said Chollet, who spoke out in favor of Clinton during her Democratic primary campaign against Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But Steven Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton and New York University, credits Trump for focusing on issues ripe for discussion. He said that while Trump talks “elliptically” and “just can’t wonk,” the GOP nominee “in his own way seems to be advocating detente,” which Cohen sees as an admirable goal.
Cohen said it’s time for critics to stop using “McCarthyite” language to demonize Trump and have a serious discussion about the issues he’s raising.
“It’s called a debate,” said Cohen. “You’re supposed to have them in a presidential campaign.”
Yet Democrats are not the only ones to recoil at Trump’s remarks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, among other top Republicans, swiftly expressed disagreement with the nominee and promised that other NATO members can count on the U.S. to defend them.
David Kramer, a State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, said he and many other foreign policy thinkers see “a Russia that poses a threat. He (Trump) sees a leader in Vladimir Putin who he thinks he can develop a good relationship with.”
Trump’s comment about Crimea and Russian sanctions, says Kramer, sent “terrible signals and will be interpreted not only as a betrayal by the United States of our allies but as rewarding aggressive behavior by Russia.”
In the 2012 presidential campaign, the dynamic over Russia was switched: Republican nominee Mitt Romney then criticized Obama for being too accommodating toward Russia. And Democrats were the ones faulting Romney for saying that Russia was America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
Obama’s early hope for that reset with Moscow had largely evaporated even before Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its military intervention in eastern Ukraine, which unnerved countries on NATO’s eastern flank that fear they also may be targets of Russian intimidation or aggression.
Against that backdrop, Trump’s remarks raising doubts about honoring U.S. NATO commitments created an international uproar.
Chollet said Trump’s accommodating attitude toward Putin, his “gut impulse” policymaking, his idea of making a “game-day decision” about whether to honor NATO promises, and the lack of specifics about how he’d achieve his goals are what make him so dangerous.
Yet others note that even the current Obama administration depends on Russia and seeks its help with many world crises.