Trump at the NATO and Russia Summits

Trump at the NATO and Russia Summits

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from Media Briefings

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Donald Trump

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)


CFR experts analyze the significance of two upcoming high-profile summits: a tense meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in Brussels on July 11—12, and U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland on July 16. 


James M. Goldgeier

Visiting Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Stephen Sestanovich

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


Anya Schmemann

Washington Director, Global Communications and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

SCHMEMANN: Thank you very much and good afternoon, everyone. I’m Anya Schmemann, Washington director of communications for the Council on Foreign Relations. And today we are here for an on-the-record call to discuss President Trump’s trip to Europe. As I noted, we are on the record, and the transcript of this call will be posted online at following the call.

I’m very pleased to be joined by two colleagues today. And as noted, we will be discussing President Trump’s trip to Europe, ongoing now, first to the NATO summit in Brussels and then a trip to the United Kingdom, England and Scotland, and then to Helsinki, where he’ll be meeting with President Putin. And I’m glad to be joined by two senior fellows. First, Jim Goldgeier, a visiting senior fellow at CFR. Also, a professor of international relations at the School of International Service, American University. And he served as dean at the School of International Service from 2011 to 2017. Dr. Goldgeier has authored a number of books, including America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11, Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy Toward Russia After the Cold War, and Not Whether but When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO.

Also joining us is Stephen Sestanovich, who’s the George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russia and Eurasian studies at CFR., and also the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He is the author of Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama, published in mid-2014. Dr. Sestanovich served as the ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union from ’97 to 2011. And we’re glad to have you both with us.

So let’s jump right in.


SCHMEMANN: Thank you. President Trump is tweeting on his way to Europe a number of tweets at NATO in particular. I did want to highlight one this morning where he says: NATO countries must pay more. The United States must pay less. Very unfair. So, Jim Goldgeier, let’s begin with you. President Trump has been consistent that the NATO allies need to be paying more—paying their share of the defense burden. Which brings us to the question of, you know, is NATO still a good deal for the United States? What can we expect at this meeting of the NATO allies in Brussels?

Jim, over to you.

GOLDGEIER: Great. Well, thanks, Anya. I do think the United States still does benefit a great deal from NATO and from having allies. And it’s one of the things that distinguishes the United States from other major competitors in the international system. China and Russia, for example, are major powers that have very few allies. And previous presidents have always seen allies as enhancing American power and its global leadership. President Trump has taken a very different turn. He reportedly said to his G-7 colleagues last month that, quote, “NATO is as bad as NAFTA.” And I think that line, NATO is as bad as NAFTA, really sums up his views that, you know, all of our arrangements like allies—like NATO, like NAFTA—I mean, these are just bad deals for the United States. The U.S. has been taken advantage of. And he’s going to do something about that.

And, you know, this is a very different view than his predecessors. Now, it is worth pointing out, U.S. presidents have been complaining about low European defense spending for more than fifty years. And it’s one of the reasons why at the Wales summit in 2014 the allies agreed to aim—to all be at 2 percent of their GDP spending on defense by 2024. And that summit was held a few months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. You know, Trump has obsessed, he’s harped on this 2 percent. It didn’t help earlier this year when Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany would only be at about 1.5 percent by 2024. That seemed to have set him off again.

And I think, you know, the important thing is that whereas previous presidents have complained about lagging spending, they didn’t make it their singular obsession. And he also tends to misuse facts, which is also—creates a dynamic within the alliance. He talks about the U.S. spending 90 percent of NATO’s total, which is not correct. He talks about how countries, you know, owe the United States money. That’s also not how it works. It’s not a protection racket. Countries aren’t paying the United States. They pay for their own defense.

And the last point I would make, just as it goes off and just thinking about this is that, you know, for—especially for the first year, but even more recently, other officials in the administration have tried to reassure the Europeans about the U.S. commitment. Secretary of Defense Mattis, Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison—I mean, they’ve tried to make clear that the United States is still invested in Europe, it’s still engaged in military exercises and deployments in the east to reassure NATO members. But I think that that reassurance is just wearing thin. Trump’s consistent anti-European message, anti-EU, anti-NATO, the imposition of tariffs, I think that’s just starting to overwhelm any of the messages coming from people like Secretary of Defense Mattis, and Europeans now really are bracing for the worst.

SCHMEMANN: Hmm. Thank you. Jim, on the NATO side, secretary-general of NATO had a piece in The Wall Street Journal yesterday, I believe, noting that in 2014 only three allies had met the 2 percent target. This year, he said, we expect that number to rise to eight, as we add Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania, and says the rest are moving in the right direction. I mean, what is your sense of where the NATO countries are moving?

SESTANOVICH: Well, they are doing more. And they’ve done significantly more since Donald Trump became president. And I think that’s one of the strange things about all of this. He could easily be going to this summit and proclaiming victory, that he had come in and complained that allies weren’t doing enough and allies have been doing more. And, you know, he could have overlooked the fact that they had already started this after the 2014 summit and were largely doing this, at least initially, because of the Russia threat. But he could easily be going over there and proclaiming victory and talking about how he himself, he alone, had transformed the alliance. And, you know, but instead he seems intent on being the disrupter.

And, you know, if the G-7 meeting is any indication, we would expect him, while noting that they’ve done more in response to him, I think his focus is going to be on criticizing them for not doing enough, and particularly Angela Merkel. He seems to have a—that seems to be a very difficult relationship. And I think we can well expect him to publicly complain that Germany’s not doing enough.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thank you.

Well, over to the Helsinki part of the trip and the meeting with Putin. Steve Sestanovich, somewhat ironic timing that he’ll be meeting with Putin following the NATO summit, where we are expecting him to have tough words for allies. The Putin meeting is quite fraught. I mean, there’s a lot on the agenda with Russia. We know that Trump has been seeking a meeting with Putin for some time and is looking forward to it. He’s tweeted that he thinks Putin will be the easiest part of this upcoming trip.

Just set the stage for us. What can we expect from this tête-à-tête?

SESTANOVICH: Well, let me just say one thing about this question of the connection between the two summits before answering your question, Anya. And thanks for doing this, by the way. I gather we have a big crowd.

You know, people say what if there’s some blowup? Won’t that really play into Putin’s hands? A blowup at NATO. In some ways, of course, he—I think he will be thrilled. The West at odds with itself certainly serves Russian interest. But I think it will also create a kind of huge furor around Trump’s foreign policy. It’ll make his foreign policy more controversial, will excite more opposition in Washington, and make it harder for him to deliver on his policies in general. So my bottom line here is Putin ought to be rooting for a nothing-burger summit.

Now, but about the meeting itself, what is Trump’s goal here, his overall goal in Russian-American relations? He’s always said that it’s to get along. It’s never been too clear what that means. Does he mean just ignoring differences? Does he mean resolving or overcoming them in a way that’s advantageous for the U.S., or that’s advantageous for Russia?

The agenda of issues that have gotten the most attention in the past year and a half are election meddling, Ukraine, arms control, and Syria. I think those are the big four. And on them, there’s been very, very little progress since the president came to office. He’s created a lot of opposition by seeming to downplay the issue of election meddling and by kind of waffling on the issue of Ukraine. And it’s for both of those reasons that the Congress voted new sanctions last year, to try to tie his hands because of lack of confidence in him.

On Syria, you’ve had a very limited kind of cooperation at a tactical level between the U.S. military and the Russian military in and around Syria. But it’s mostly been staying out of each other’s way. And on arms control, you’ve had very little movement of any kind, although the United States has periodically accused the Russians of violating the INF Treaty.

Now, the question is, are we going to be in a new phase at this meeting? And I think there are some things that suggest we could be. The first is that Trump comes to this meeting showing a kind of obvious recognition that he’s got to handle the election-meddling issue in a different way. Pompeo has said he will handle it and be very strong. And Trump has, for the first time that I know of, sort of agreed with him. He says no one wants any interference in our elections.

Similarly, although he’s said things about possibly recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, John Bolton has said that is not the position of the United States and Trump seems to have backed away from that a little bit, so some recognition that in order to defend what happens at Helsinki, they’ve got to take a stronger line on those two issues.

There are other things happening on Syria and arms control. You have—it’s clear that the president intends to raise the level of Syria as an issue for military-military coordination to presidential discussion, and I think the reason is the war is in a new phase, there’s apparent interest by the president to scale back American involvement, and, above all, a desire to limit Iran’s role in Syria, going forward, and particularly, limit the possibility of a war between Iran and Israel, and that’s an issue on which the president, Pompeo, and Bolton seem to agree.

Finally, on arms control, both the president and some of his advisors have been saying there’s a need to go forward and to try to address some of these issues of a, you know, out of control arms race I think is what the president has said, and Putin has said he agrees with that analysis—that the arms race is getting out of control.

Now, it’s not at all clear how any of these will be handled in a statement. But it seems as though, certainly, according to the Russian media, that drafts of a joint statement have been exchanged back and forth between the Kremlin and the White House, probably continuing this week, and I would say the most likely outcome you’d get is to create forums and channels for further discussions so that Bolton and Pompeo can take over these questions and have expert handling of them.

There’s some miscellaneous other issues where you could imagine some discussion—the chemical weapons poisoning in the U.K., sanctions relief of some sort. I think those are hard to predict. I don’t rule them out. President Trump likes talking about leaders doing favors to each other, and you could imagine he might try to find some way of doing a favor for Putin. And Putin himself likes surprises and likes to make a splash, and possibly, on some of these issues, he may try to show that the cooperation between the two presidents has taken a step forward.

I think we know less about where we’re going to end up than about the agenda, going in, which has firmed up, in a way, that I think one couldn’t have been sure of even a month or so ago. Why don’t I stop there?

SCHMEMANN: Great. Thank you, Steve.

Let me ask you just really briefly about the optics of this meeting. The recent visit by a congressional delegation—a group of Republicans—to Moscow, they got some criticism for being there on the 4th of July. Is there any risk to President Trump, you know, in terms of domestic politics and the stature that he is trying to project for having this meeting right after NATO and right after England?

SESTANOVICH: Well, look, there are people who would not want Trump to meet with Putin at any time, whether it’s, you know, right around the time of a NATO summit or not. The president has got a strong point to push back on there. You know, we need to talk to other people to understand our differences. I don’t think that issue is going to be particularly powerful.

There are concerns that he will be too chummy with Putin—that there will be a one-on-one meeting with no note takers, only translators, no other senior officials. Even that, I have to tell you, is hardly unprecedented among presidents dealing with their Russian counterparts. Bill Clinton did the same thing with Yeltsin, did the same thing with Putin. Ronald Reagan did the same thing with Gorbachev.

So I think there will be some criticism of that kind. But what the president needs to do in order to deflect any of that is sort of what I was saying a moment ago. He’s got to show that he’s not just taking a dive on some of these questions. For example, if he has a more robust line about election meddling, a lot of people will say, well, at least he’s no longer just saying, well, I believe Putin is sincere in denying it. If he repeats the I believe Putin is sincere line, he’s just making trouble for himself.

SCHMEMANN: All right. Thank you. So, for anyone who has joined us a little late, this is an on-the-record conference call to discuss President Trump’s trip to Europe, specifically the NATO summit in Brussels and the meeting with Russian President Putin in Helsinki. And joined by two Council on Foreign Relations senior fellows, James Goldgeier and Stephen Sestanovich. And just a note to everyone who’s listening in, we do have a lot of additional resources on the Council on Foreign Relations website, including recent pieces by both of our speakers.

And I think with that we will move to questions. I do encourage members of the media particularly to chime in if you have questions and we’ll get to as many as we can. So, operator, if you could give us instructions, please.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am. At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Robin Wright with The New Yorker.

Q: Thanks for doing this. Both my questions are for Steve Sestanovich.

What about the issue of peacekeepers on Ukraine and the very different interpretations? Is there a possible compromise that the two men could reach? So far there are very deep differences over how that would work.

And, secondly, Pompeo had some language this morning about the United States working hard during these—during these two summits to try to figure out a way to get Iran out of Syria. Can you talk a little bit about what a compromise might look like and what you think the U.S. goal is?

SESTANOVICH: Two hard ones. You know, peacekeepers in Ukraine, as everyone will remember, Putin began talking about this last fall and said it would be acceptable to Russia, desirable to introduce peacekeepers. The question was—immediately emerged, though: What numbers? Deployed in what way? With what ability to actually contribute to peace? And it seemed as though really the Russian—what the Russians had in mind was just a kind of security force for OSCE and other monitors. And the Ukrainian view, echoed by all Western governments, was that’s not peacekeeping; that’s just, you know, a kind of meaningless fig leaf.

Since then the discussions have gone back and forth about broadening the deployment, and the Russians have at different times seemed to indicate that they would be willing to have a broader mandate covering more of the territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. But I don’t know that they’ve actually come to any kind of closure on that one. That would be a big step forward, but it would—it would certainly require the kind of buy-in of a lot of other governments, including the—including the Ukrainians. I just don’t know where that—where that stands. My guess is it’s sort of an issue in—still in motion.

About Iran out of Syria, this has been a theme of the administration for months now, definitely egged on by the Israeli government and the Israeli military, which have been worried about signs that the Iranians were expanding their activities, giving Hezbollah new capabilities—missile launching, munitions manufacturing, and the like. The problem with this is—with any sort of resolution is that you can get some kind of—introduce kind of a caution or some pullback by Iranian and Hezbollah forces, but it isn’t exactly going to eliminate the Iranian presence. The ambitious way in which American policymakers have formulated this goal, getting the Iranians out of Syria, is so grand as to be really unrealistic. And I don’t think that’s what’s being discussed. It may, down the road, be raised again. But in the first instance, the desire that the Israelis have particularly sought is just to get limits on Iranian-Hezbollah activities close to the Golan. If they can get anything—if they can get even that, it will be an achievement at the summit. More than that, I think, would be a real stretch.

SCHMEMANN: Great, thank you. We’ll take the next one.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Trudy Rubin with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Q: Thanks. And thanks for doing this.

I’d like to ask a question on the likely playout of the issue of election meddling. Trump repeated again last week the Putin mantra that Putin says he didn’t do it. And as you know, last year he said that Putin is very insulted because we keep asking this.

So if that is the tone that emerges at the summit, at the same time that our closest allies are very concerned about election meddling in their elections, how is that going to color the whole summit? Because it gives the aura that Trump is willing to take Putin at his word. And there certainly will be other issues when that comes up. For example, I don’t know if the shootdown of the Malaysian plane will be mentioned, the poisoning of the Skripals, where Putin just denies. So, if the election meddling is finessed because Putin says he didn’t do it, how will that affect the overall outcome of the summit?

SCHMEMANN: Steve, why don’t you start?

And then, Jim, I’ll ask you to chime in as well.

SESTANOVICH: I think that the president has mishandled this issue from the beginning because of the reason that you mentioned, Trudy, which is that he has suggested that he’s prepared to believe Putin’s denials.

Putin is not going to do anything but deny. And the important thing for the president here is not to step into this trap of saying anything that suggests he believes in the denials. He may be interested in getting some kind of categorical statement by Putin that such activities should not happen, and there may even be some hinting by Russians, including Putin—say, at a press conference—that there could have been some other Russians who were responsible for this meddling, but it wasn’t with any official mandate or authorization.

And if Putin—if Trump goes and says, oh, that satisfies him, then he will also be making a big mistake. What he has got to do is really indicate that he takes this issue seriously, that he’s prepared to take measures, you know, sort of unilaterally within other—you know, in cooperation with friendly countries to prevent this sort of thing.

I mean, the president could do himself a lot of good if he seemed to be interested in taking precautionary, preventive measures that would limit the ability of the Russians to do anything of this sort in the future. His big trap will be if he treats this, you know, kind of Singapore summit-style, as an issue that the two sides have got an understanding on.

He should indicate we are going to be extremely watchful. We are determined not to let this happen again, and Russia will not benefit if it tries.


GOLDGEIER: Yeah, I would just add, I mean, this is—I’d like to come back to the earlier issue of this potential one on one, where the two are there just with the translators. This is the subject I’m most concerned about.

Steve’s right that, you know, there’s plenty of precedent for this. You know, and under normal circumstances, having the two presidents meet for a brief time just by themselves wouldn’t be a huge deal. You know, it’s harder when there are no notes. But you would expect, under normal circumstances, for at least one or more of the president’s aides to feel pretty confident that the president would come out and report accurately what had been said.

You know, John Bolton, Secretary Pompeo, I mean, nobody can have confidence in what Trump comes out of that telling them occurred. And who knows what he might say about this particular issue when he’s in there just with Putin. And, you know, plenty of opportunity for him to soft-pedal it, for him to say things like, you know, I have to say something publicly about this, but don’t worry I’m—you know, I take your denial at face value, or something. I mean, there’s plenty of ways this could go back in that one-on-one. And that’s what concerns me.

Trump is very hamstrung on this issue because he’s so concerned about any doubt about the legitimacy of his own election that he doesn’t want to give any sense that, yeah, there might have been meddling and that’s how he won. I mean, he doesn’t—you know, he doesn’t want to go there. So it makes it hard for him to really deal adequately with this—with this issue. And the last thing I would say is that, you know, Putin could well try the approach of—because the Russians have sort of floated this previously. Well, let’s both agree that we’re not going to meddle in each other’s election. And that might sound appealing on the face of it, but it basically then makes it seem like there’s an equivalent thing of what the United States—the United States engagement abroad has been and the direct interference in this particular election. So I think that’s a—that’s a dangerous place, if that’s where this ends up.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Zachary Cohen with CNN.

Q: Hi. Thanks for doing this, guys. My question is for Jim.

You mentioned that, you know, Secretary Mattis, among others, have sort of tried to reassure the Europeans, but that reassurance may be wearing thin. And the Europeans are really bracing for the worst, I believe you said. Do you mind elaborating on what you mean by bracing for the worst? And sort of what the—you know, the vibe is among the Europeans going into this NATO meeting?

GOLDGEIER: So I think what—you know, the concern is that Trump will really cast doubt on America’s commitment to European security. You know, he’s certainly done it before and if he does it at this summit it just continues to hammer home to the Europeans that they really need to wonder about a future without a U.S. commitment. And they’re in a tough spot, because to do anything really on their own, to really make a huge investment, is a long-term proposition. So they’re in a pretty tough spot. I would say the thing that concerns me is the dynamic similar to the one we saw in June with the G-7 summit and then the meeting with Kim in Singapore.

You know, an analogous way that this could pay out could be for Trump to go to NATO, to have a dust-up with allies, to then go and have, you know, a chummy meeting with Putin. And potentially, just as he did with the South Korean, with the military exercises with South Korea, cancelling them after the Singapore summit, and adopting Kim’s, you know, language of provocative war games. I think there’s a lot of concern that he could do that here and back off from the U.S. commitment on exercises as well as deployments to reassure eastern members. And, you know, that’s a perfectly plausible scenario for him, going first to NATO and then meeting with Putin, and then coming out of the Helsinki meeting.

So certainly for the NATO members, the meetings aren’t over after he leaves Brussels. I mean, they’re going to want to see whether he says anything further after Helsinki, as he did with respect to military exercises with South Korea after the Singapore summit.

SESTANOVICH: Anya, could I add one thing?

SCHMEMANN: Go ahead.

SESTANOVICH: Yeah, the U.S. can decide unilaterally to call off exercises with the South Koreans. It gets a lot more complicated when you’re talking about NATO exercises, because they’re not done at the decision of the United States. And you can have a kind of decision chaos resulting from an American statement that, for example, they’re not going to send anybody or they’re going to send greatly reduced participants. One idea I’ve heard in the past few days is that the United States might even say that it was going to cut its increase or eliminate its increase for the so-called European deterrence initiative, which was—involved $4.8 billion in spending this year, supposed to go up to 6 ½ (billion dollars) next year.

You know, it would be totally consistent with Trump’s tweets for him to say, OK, we’re zeroing that—we’re zeroing out that increase. General Mattis won’t like that, but I’ve heard this joke that the—at the Pentagon they say—they say that the president now calls the secretary “Moderate Dog” Mattis, which is to say his influence is declining.

SCHMEMANN: Wow. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Angela Dougherty (sp) with the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Q: Hi, there. And I am laughing at that joke. That was really great. (Laughter.)

I have—I have a question. You’ve already kind of begun to answer it. But there is this, you know, theory that Putin will come with something in his back pocket—some proposal, kind of a—like, a denuclearization proposal that will look very good on the surface—it might be very simple, but it would give Trump a win. At least, that’s the idea.

You started down this path, but I’m wondering if either of you have—Jim or Steve, if you have any predictions about what Putin specifically could offer that would fill this—fill this need.

SCHMEMANN: Steve, why don’t you go first, and then Jim?

SESTANOVICH: Well, I think, you know, there’s—one can imagine something on all of these—on all of these issues. The two where I would say the ground has been prepared the best are Syria and arms control. The—as I said, in either case you could just say we agreed that our ministers will continue the discussion.

But if you wanted to have something that made it look as though the presidents had actually been discussing substance, there is, of course, the renewal of the New START Treaty. There is some agreement about how to address each side’s claims about violations of the INF Treaty. You could have verification visits by the two sides to address that.

In the case of Syria, you can have new instructions to military on the ground about the ways in which there will be coordination, and some of that can be enhanced by kind of Israeli participation. This issue is more complicated because it involves doing things that the Iranians may not agree to. So that’s a tough one.

But it’s, certainly, one where the—where Bolton and Pompeo have foreshadowed some kind of progress. I would say on election meddling, it’s sort of along the lines of what we’ve talked about that Putin could go a little further, saying, you know, this was—this freelancing by nonstate Russians and on Ukraine, again, something that pursues the peacekeeping option, although, as I say, that—Ukraine, even though there’s been quite a lot of fighting of late, has not really activated the two sides that I’ve seen.


GOLDGEIER: Yeah. I just would say that—I mean, again, just coming back to this one on one between the two, I just think that it’s a really important moment for Putin to try to help shape Trump’s thinking without anybody else in the room. And so, for example, on Ukraine, you know, it was reported when George W. Bush was president that Putin said to Bush, well, you know, George, Ukraine isn’t really even a country, sort of, you know, with the suggestion that it doesn’t really belong as a separate independent state.

I mean, I can easily imagine him trying to—for Putin to just try to shape Trump’s thinking about a range of issues that will serve him well, going forward.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you.

SESTANOVICH: Just one further point on that, Anya. I think it’s exactly right that in that one on one Putin will try to establish some kind of understanding between the two. I believe that’s why the advisors have been interested in a—in a statement where the wording gets worked out by them and not by—(laughs)—not by the presidents. It’s a kind of implicit vote of limited confidence in the president that they want the document, that they control more than he does to be the deliverable of the meeting.

Then, of course, there’s the third category, which is what the two presidents say in the press conference. And that’s where, again, things are sort of up for grabs.

SCHMEMANN: We’ll take another question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from James Kitfield with the Center for the Study for the Presidency.

Q: Yeah. Thanks, guys, for doing this.

Recently we’ve heard a number of comments from European officials saying to the effect that, whereas Trump was unpredictable and kind of disruptive in his first year, that they detect almost a strategy now of undermining of the alliance. And you talk—and you quote things like Trump telling Macron from France, why don’t you leave the EU; of Steve Bannon going throughout Europe and promoting, you know, anti-NATO, anti-EU sort of right-wing populist movements; of Trump now equating security and the deficit and trade deficit with the EU—that there’s more of a strategy behind it that seems to be undermining the alliance on purpose, in a way. So it’s not haphazard anymore.

I’m curious whether you—either of you buy into that or what you make of it.


Jim, actually, I’d like to just quickly add on to that. It struck me in two of Trump’s tweets this morning and yesterday that he did mention the European Union trade surplus, how we lose money with the European Union, but very much making this linkage with trade and with NATO spending.

So, yes, this is that question of if there’s a deeper strategy here.

GOLDGEIER: Well, I think we don’t know. I mean, I think this is one of the most interesting questions about the entire Trump presidency and the entire year and a half, because he’s created plenty of leverage in plenty of different areas, you know, because he had people—they were scared of him, right. The Canadians and Mexicans wanted to do something within the NAFTA process. The Europeans were eager to perhaps do more on the Iran deal; you know, China, Europe, on trade issues.

The problem is it’s not been clear, like, what exactly does he want? He’s certainly pushed them. But is there some kind of deal that he actually wants to achieve? And that’s what’s so perplexing. I think, for the Europeans, it’s very concerning the way in which he brings these two issues together and essentially, you know, makes this argument, especially because he’s always talking about trade in goods. He conveniently leaves aside trade in services.

So he’s always looking at trade in goods, and then he makes these comments that, you know, they’re taking advantage of us. And then he ties it to something like NATO, which is basically we’ve been paying for their protection, and meanwhile they’ve gone about taking advantage of us, and that has to stop.

So, of course, you know, they don’t like it. But there’s also this question of, you know, what exactly is he trying to achieve? If there were—if there were a deal there—I think for a lot of partners, whether it’s the Chinese or the Canadians, the Mexicans, the Europeans, I think if there were signs that there was some deal to be had, you know, they would be interested in trying to pursue it. But that’s the part of the strategy that, to me, at least, remains very unclear.

SCHMEMANN: Steve, do you want to add to that?

SESTANOVICH: Only that—(laughs)—you know, it’s also unclear whether—to what extent Trump gets that the EU and NATO are two different organizations and that the European members of NATO are not there in their capacity as members of the EU or that—I mean, he seems to think they make trade policy, whereas the EU makes its own trade policy. The European Council and Commission and European governments as governments have—they really don’t have any say over trade policy.

I think this is confusing and frustrating to Trump. And it is something that has not—it’s clearly not been clarified for him. Traditionally, American presidents, you know, they have their summits with the EU. They have their summits with NATO. But they’ve always kept them separate. This—Trump is the first president who sort of acted as though they were the same meeting.

SCHMEMANN: Really quickly, Steve, I think James Kitfield was also asking about an affinity with rightist groups in Europe, and sort of populist—a populist agenda. Sort of beyond the trade and EU part, do you think there’s something more here in terms of the politics of it?

SESTANOVICH: Well, you know, you saw this in the comments of Ambassador Grenell recently, who, you know, has praised right-wing groups in Europe, in the president’s own criticisms of Merkel when she was in the middle of a Cabinet crisis. The adulation that they sort of showered on some right-wing leader—populist leaders who’ve come to power. The chancellor of Austria, the new prime minister in Italy. There is definitely an anxiety among Europeans that Trump and Putin together are kind of conveying a joint message to European populist groups that they support them against EU governments.

SCHMEMANN: OK. Thank you.

Operator, if you could just remind folks how to get in the queue for questions, and then we’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Michael Klare with The Nation magazine.

Q: Yes. Very good. Thank you so much for putting on this session. It’s very useful.

My question is for both gentlemen. And it’s this: If you put aside the debate about 2 percent spending levels in NATO, which has consumed much of the discussion, what’s really been happening, so far as I can tell at NATO, has been a push to build up NATO forces in the frontline states, in the Baltic Republics, in Poland, in Scandinavia, and so on. And this, of course, has outraged the Russians, who are responding by building up their own forces in Kaliningrad. And I would assume that these measures, and the threats they pose, would be a major discussion at the summit that’s being held. But I hear no discussion of this now, with the—with the debate about 2 percent. So where does that stand, this pressure in NATO to beef up defenses and stand up to Russia in Eastern Europe?

SCHMEMANN: Jim, you first.

GOLDGEIER: Yeah, so thanks for the question. So this has been a very important issue for NATO members ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. The eastern members of NATO wanted reassurance—countries like Estonia and Poland wanted reassurance that NATO was there for them and that it would prevent any further Russian aggression. And I think, you know, Putin does seem to recognize that there’s a difference between a non-NATO member, like Ukraine, that doesn’t have a security guarantee, and countries like Estonia and Poland that are covered by the Article 5 NATO security guarantee. And so I think he recognizes that there’s—that there’s a line there. But it’s been important for the Eastern members to be reassured.

And that’s why I was saying that I—that one of the things I’ll be looking for is whether or not we have a similar replay to what occurred in June, in the aftermath of the Singapore summit. Will President Trump come out of the Helsinki summit talking about the need for the United States and its partners to pull back from some of these commitments in the east? And will he accept, you know, if Putin decides to raise this as an issue that’s provocative to Russia, will Trump go along? I think that’s something that we should be watching for.

SCHMEMANN: Thanks. Steve?

SESTANOVICH: Yeah. You know, as NATO enlarged it made commitments to the Russians about the kind of presence it would have in the new states, saying there wouldn’t be permanent installations, there wouldn’t be large—you know, large units deployed, and so forth. The Ukraine crisis inevitably raised the question of whether those reassurances were wise, and whether they had to be reexamined. And a lot of the buildup that has been done since the Ukraine crisis has, in fact, been very much within the four corners of those reassurances, so that it’s temporary deployments even though they’re often, as they say in NATO, heel to toe. They’re small units. You know, we’re talking about deployments in the hundreds. Instead of having large deployments, there’s a lot of pre-positioning of equipment. The emphasis has been, and will be in Mattis’ 30-30-30-30 proposals, for rapidity of, you know, reinforcement capacity rather than having people on the front line as you did during the Cold War in the—you know, in central Germany.

But NATO is going to have to keep reviewing this question as to whether or not those constraints still make sense for the alliance and still allow the kind of security that members should have. And here Putin, of course, has the ability to shape the discussion by the way in which Russia comports itself. And all—but also, you know, he may say this is something we want to be able to discuss. And there, you know, one thing that always happens when you get meetings of this kind is people say we need more meetings of the NATO-Russia Council. And, you know, that can certainly be a forum for this question, but you know, the big problem that the Russians face in the additional presence and activities of NATO force on the territory of new members, that’s a problem they’ve created for themselves.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. It looks like we have time for just a few more questions, so let’s see if we can squeeze in two more. We’ll take the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Sophie Bogrichvili (ph) with the Voice of America.

Q: Hi. Can you hear me?


Q: Hi. I’m with Voice of America’s Georgian Service. And, as you know, Georgia and Ukraine share quite a few similar characteristics when it comes to European integration aspirations and the obstacles standing in their way from achieving those goals, namely Russia. I’m curious what you think Georgia and Ukraine can expect from the NATO summit and if the eventual extension of a membership action plan is even plausible for them at this point. And also, to what extent does the Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and Crimea in Ukraine restrict both countries’ prospects to join the alliance?

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Jim, why don’t you take that Georgia question?

GOLDGEIER: Yeah, so I don’t—I don’t think membership action plans are in the near future for either Georgia or Ukraine. And I—any membership for those two countries is extremely far off in the distance if it were ever to occur. And certainly the—you know, the Russians have created these territorial crises in both countries and insecurity in both countries, and that has—you know, that was by design; Putin, first in Georgia in 2008 and then in Ukraine in 2014, to make clear what his own red lines were with respect to the—you know, the movement of Western institutions eastward into the former Soviet space.

So, you know, I think the best that Georgia and Ukraine can hope for from NATO is continued statements whenever possible that NATO by treaty, by Article 10 of the treaty, which has an open door for European states that can meet the criteria of the alliance and contribute to alliance security, that there is—there is an open door even if it’s—you know, if it—if it’s not cited with particular respect to these two, I think NATO commitment to open door is important. And really with respect to membership, you know, the big—the big issue at this summit is going to be an extension of an invitation for a track for Macedonia now that the—now that the Greeks and the Macedonians have come to an agreement on the name for that country.

SCHMEMANN: North Macedonia I believe it is, or northern. Great. Thanks. I think we have another VOA question, so why don’t we take that next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Daniela Gellervich (ph) with Voice of America.

Q: Hi. This is Russian Service of the Voice of America. My question is to both.

Some people are expressing their concerns that this Trump—his summit will become kind of a new Yalta agreement instead of a new Helsinki, to divide areas of interests. And that Putin has something in this insisting of areas of interest which is understandable for Trump. What do you think? Are these concerns—or have some basis? And how Europe should react if it will take place, indeed?

SCHMEMANN: Steve, why don’t you take that one?

SESTANOVICH: Well, I think the concern is understandable, because the president has said things that seem to encourage a kind of Russian interference in, for example, countries that have Russian minorities, or where there are Russian speakers, which could enhance the sphere of Russian interference in Ukraine and many other countries. And it’s possible that the President will say something careless or uninformed on these questions or informed by Putin. If he does, it will undermine his effort.

My whole message to the—(laughs)—you know, administration, which I think they’re hearing from lots of different people and from their own ranks, is that if the president is seen to be making concessions of that sort—and I’m sure he doesn’t know what Yalta is—he will undermine his effort to create a new relationship with Putin. He will inflame opposition in Europe and in the institutions of the United States government—in the Congress—that will lead to people trying to block what he’s doing. As I said earlier, that’s how you got those congressional votes last summer to make sanctions statutory.

And so the president could easily undermine his own aims in getting along with Putin if it seemed as though he were making—whether out of ignorance or design—it seemed as though he were granting concessions that are widely opposed within Europe and within the United States. So it’s a tricky issue for him. He’s got to handle it right, or else his—you know, his kind of Helsinki lovefest could just blow up.

SCHMEMANN: Great. I think we can squeeze in one short question with a very quick answer. We are aware that we have a soccer match to get to. (Laughter.) So, Operator, let’s take that last question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from James Thomson with RAND.

Q: Hi. I’ll make it a quick one. Jim, could you give us a read on what you think is meant by this order from the White House, the Pentagon, to study the possible withdrawal of forces from Germany? Or maybe it said from Europe. I don’t know whether it says specifically Germany or Europe.

GOLDGEIER: Yeah. So my understanding is that, you know, the Pentagon has received this order to look at redeployment from Germany. What’s not clear yet is—I mean, there are a couple of different options that have been cited. One is, you know, because Poland would actually like U.S. forces stationed in Poland. So, you know, one question is would troops be redeployed from Germany to Poland, which, you know, would make the Poles happy. That would be something, of course, Putin, I’m sure, would want to raise with Trump as something that he would not be a big fan of. Or, is it reducing U.S. troop presence in Europe.

I think, you know, the problem there from the Pentagon’s standpoint is troops—U.S. troops in Germany are not just there, you know, as part of the whole European security framework. But they’re there to deal with contingencies that arise for the United States in Africa and the Middle East. So it’s part of U.S. power projection. So that seems like something that would require a very long-term conversation.

SCHMEMANN: Great. Steve, a last comment from you?

SESTANOVICH: No, that’s fine. Jim has put it perfectly.

SCHMEMANN: OK. Excellent. Well, thanks to everyone. I apologize to anyone that we didn’t get to. We appreciate everyone dialing in. And thanks so much to our experts, Jim and Steve, for talking us through this—these upcoming meetings.

Once again, the transcript from this call will be posted on CFR’s website, We do have a number of additional resources there. And we’ll be glad to follow up with any particular questions or suggestions that anyone on the call might have. And we thank you for spending your time with us. Thank you, Jim. And thank you, Steve.

SESTANOVICH: Thanks, Anya. Thanks, everyone.

GOLDGEIER: Pleasure. Thanks.


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