Donald Trump has confounded his NATO partners and is now on his way to make nice with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The U.S. president’s many critics call him a dictator lover who is deliberately trying to up-end the post-1945 world order. But a simpler explanation is that he is doing what he promised: reconfiguring that world order so America gets more benefit.
Trump went through the Brussels NATO summit this week like a one-man wrecking crew. He demanded, insulted and complained.
He took credit for things that didn’t happen – most notably a non-existent promise by the allies to spend more than 2 per cent of their entire economic output on defence – and praised himself as a “very stable genius.”
Like the 28 other NATO leaders in attendance, Trump signed a summit declaration that singled out Russian meddling in Europe as a major threat to world peace.
“There can be no return to ‘business as usual’ until there is a clear constructive change in Russia’s attitudes,” the 23-page declaration read
But Trump clearly didn’t mean it. And in his own rambling way, he raised a legitimate question: If NATO members think Russia is so bad, why do they continue to do business with the country?
In particular, why are they pushing ahead with an undersea pipeline project to double the amount of natural gas that Russia sells directly to Western Europe?
The story of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline illustrates all of the contradictions of NATO’s approach to Russia.
Eastern European members in particular see Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as well as its meddling in the affairs of former Soviet republics, such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, as a direct threat.
Yet much of Europe is reliant on Russian natural gas. Germany gets 40 per cent of its gas from Russia, France 25 per cent. Overall, about 37 per cent of Europe’s natural gas comes from Russia.
Currently, most Russian gas exports to Europe are carried on east-west pipelines running through countries such as Poland and Ukraine. But commercial and political disputes have made some of these lines unreliable.
A 2009 dispute between Russia and Ukraine led to a 13-day disruption of gas to Western Europe – in the middle of winter. That, in turn, increased pressure on the Europeans to go ahead with Nord Stream 1, a pipeline built under the Baltic Sea and running from Russia directly to Germany. It was completed by 2011.
Then came Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Europe, the U.S. and Canada responded by levying limited economic sanctions against Russia.
But no one in Western Europe was anxious to curtail the flow of Russian natural gas. Indeed, plans for a second undersea pipeline from Russia to Germany, Nord Stream 2, were soon underway.
That pipeline is being built by the Russian energy giant Gazprom. Big German, French, Dutch and Austrian companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, are involved in the financing. It’s due to be completed in 2020.
Trump argued in Brussels that it makes no sense for America to pick up the bulk of the cost of defending Germany from Moscow when the Germans themselves are engaged in a massive business deal with Russia. He has a point.
But the broader point is this: How can Russia be both a threat to NATO countries and their business partner? The question is most obviously directed at Germany and France. Yet Canada, Iceland, Norway, the U.S. and Denmark are happy to have a business-as-usual relationship with Russia in the Arctic – regardless of what the NATO declaration they signed says.
Trump has long argued that Russia need not be treated as an implacable enemy. That’s why he is meeting Putin on Monday in Finland.
In this new Cold War climate, the idea of making an accommodation with Moscow may seem odd. But the bumptious U.S. president has it right. Russia is a big country with its own interests. It is not Satan.
Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics.
Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services