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Backdrop for Putin summit: A pattern of Trump disrespecting allies?

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European officials looking back at the contentious Group of Seven summit and Trump's cozy follow-up in Singapore wonder what his NATO-Putin program means for US-European relations.

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President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam on Nov. 11, 2017.

Jorge Silva/Reuters/FILE

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President Trump has wanted to hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin for a long time, essentially from Day 1 of his tenure.

But from Mr. Trump’s perspective, the fact that the long-awaited one-on-one with the Russian leader has now been set to take place just days after a NATO summit he’ll attend with European leaders might seem like a case of good things coming to those who wait.

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The president seemed to relish his recent one-two punch of a contentious meeting with America’s chief economic partners at the G7 summit in Quebec, Canada, followed immediately by the historic and ebullient one-on-one in Singapore with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. So for Trump, the prospect of repeating the formula barely a month later is likely tremendously appealing.

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But European allies are anxious about a potential rerun of what was portrayed as a kick-the-allies-then-fete-an-adversary performance by the American president. They worry that Trump will use his European tour beginning at a NATO summit in Brussels next week to question transatlantic security and economic ties – only to then team up with Mr. Putin to undermine a united Europe, US-Europe analysts say.

“There’s a building sense of foreboding about a ‘Ground Hog Day the Movie’ scenario where we have a summit with allies that goes terribly wrong, and then a summit with an adversary that goes swimmingly well – and that this is the way things are going to be under this president,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“It’s starting to sink in that if what we have this month is a redo of the Quebec-Singapore scenario, then what the allies are facing is a very different foreign-policy approach from the one the United States has pursued since World War II,” she adds.

Trump has long been set to attend the NATO summit July 11-12, followed by a one-day working visit to Britain July 13. Last week the White House announced that, following a meeting with Putin in Moscow by national security adviser John Bolton, the two sides had agreed to a Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki July 16.

It is not the prospect of a US-Russia summit that is worrisome, European officials say, but the cementing of a pattern from the Trump White House that is hostile to Western allies – and in particular to the “European project” led by the European Union. It is not so much an unpredictable Trump that is raising transatlantic anxieties, they add, but a Trump who is reliably antagonistic toward Europe.

“In fact, the president has been extremely consistent in his criticism of the [North Atlantic] Alliance.… He has been very clear that there is a special Trumpian hell for the European Union and China, with the EU considered to be worse than China,” says a senior European official in Washington, who requested anonymity to speak freely on the US-Europe relationship.

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“As for the summit with Putin, we say ‘Why not?’ ” the official adds, noting that the US and Russia should be talking at the highest levels on issues ranging from arms control and Ukraine to Syria and Iran.

“There are a lot of issues you have to handle by going directly to Putin, we understand that,” the official says. “What concerns us is the sequence of having a bad NATO summit and a good summit” with Putin, he adds, highlighting the potential risks – such as the appearance of a ganging up on Europe.

Trump’s words and actions

The Europeans’ concerns are based not on mere speculation but on Trump’s words and actions.

Candidate Trump railed against the North Atlantic Alliance for costing American taxpayers too much while wealthy Europeans paid too little. That theme has attained new vigor under Trump in office.

The president told leaders at the G7 summit that “NATO is as bad as NAFTA” – and there is no mystery as to what Trump thinks of NAFTA, the free-trade deal with Canada and Mexico. Officials attending the Quebec meetings also confirm that Trump deemed the Alliance “much too costly” for US taxpayers and told colleagues the upcoming NATO gathering “will be an interesting summit” – suggesting to them that the president intends to make a few waves.

Highlighting his preference for bilateral relations over multilateral arrangements at a rally in North Dakota last week, Trump told his audience he “loves European countries” but that the EU was “set up to take advantage of the US.”

US-Europe relations have hit rough spots in the past and at times have suffered from Washington’s neglect, some analysts say. But American hostility to the institutions that have buttressed transatlantic ties – NATO and the EU – is new, they add, and suggests an animus that goes well beyond financial grievances.

“What we have never seen before is what looks increasingly like a policy of the Trump administration to undercut what we’ve come to call the European project,” says Ms. Conley. “It starts to feel like this is a policy to divide and erode Europe.”

She and others, including European officials, point to various signs of support from the administration for Europe’s populists and nationalists who target the EU as their worst enemy. More shocking still, they say, are the reports (since confirmed) that Trump at various times has encouraged French President Emmanuel Macron to pull France out of the EU – attempting to lure one of the EU’s most fervent supporters with the promise of a strong bilateral trade deal with the US.

Concern among US officials

Strong reaction to Trump’s approach to Europe has not stopped at European officials but has also surfaced among some American officials.

Last week the US ambassador to Estonia, Jim Melville, announced his resignation over Trump’s recent attacks on the EU, which he termed “factually wrong.” Before that, some members of Congress called on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to fire the US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, after he suggested that one of his goals while in Berlin is to nurture Europe’s nationalist conservatives.

Administration officials say Trump is indeed unhappy with the costs the US bears to lead such multilateral institutions as NATO and the G7 – and that he will continue to push the issue until he gets results. But to jump from that to conclude that the president is hard on allies yet soft on adversaries, they add, is going too far.

“I don’t think anybody ought to have a case of the vapors over discussions we have in NATO or the G7 versus discussions we have with Putin or Kim Jong-un,” Mr. Bolton said on “Fox News Sunday.” “They’re very, very different [and] the president treats them differently.”

That may be, but European officials worry that once Trump sits down alone with Putin, he’ll adopt the Russian president’s positions vis-à-vis America’s allies, as he did with Mr. Kim – as when he adopted North Korea’s language to describe joint US-South Korean military exercises as “provocative.”

Some worry that, after talking with Putin, Trump could say he agrees that US troops stationed in NATO countries abutting Russia are “provocative” – or could confirm his earlier stated view that Crimea, the Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia, is indeed Russian because most people there speak Russian.

“The alarm we’re sensing among the Europeans and other allies is in part the still-raw experience of the G7, but it’s also a result of seeing the president of the United States assuming the language of Kim Jong-un as opposed to using the language the US leader has over time settled on with its allies to use about the situation,” says Conley. “It raises the question: Will we see a repeat of that?”