Frida Ghitis: Trump's interview with European papers was a gut punch to Europe; he seems willing to upend alliances in favor of Putin
She says if Trump does not follow lead of advisers like Mattis, US and Europe risk fracturing a mighty economic, political and military bloc
Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a frequent contributor to CNN, and a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. She is a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Is Donald Trump preparing to surrender America’s interests to Russia?
President-elect Donald Trump’s interview with the Times of London and Germany’s Bild on Monday was a punch in the gut to Europe.
He appeared to signal that the United States may turn its back on its allies, thereby weakening America and strengthening Russia, and throwing away what America helped build over three-quarters of a century.
Judging by what we have heard from Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin should not have been just satisfied with Trump’s election. He should have been overjoyed. There are few issues of friction between Russia and the West in which Trump has not already indicated he plans to take Putin’s side.
In Trump’s astonishing statements to the newspapers, he described the European Union as an instrument of German domination. Germany and its leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of America’s most important allies, were a particular focus of Trump’s thinly-veiled attacks.
Trump said he trusts Merkel and Putin equally, placing the leader of a country at the core of the trans-Atlantic alliance in the same category as the leader of a nation that has antagonized the United States at every turn. “I start off trusting both,” he said dismissively, “but let’s see how long it lasts.” How Putin must have enjoyed this!
Trump repeated his claim that NATO is obsolete, and breezily declared he doesn’t care what happens to the European Union, calling Britain’s decision to leave “a great thing.” That position is remarkable because since World War II every single US administration has supported European integration as a way to strengthen the Western alliance and promote its shared values.
The Russia file is politically charged for the President-elect. A new CNN/ORC poll shows 8 in 10 Americans say they’re paying close attention to the issue. And although there is deep disagreement over the significance of recent intelligence reports, an area of overwhelming consensus is disapproval of Putin, with just 12% saying they have a positive view of the Russian president.
Let’s pause here to recall: There is a reason why the US and Europe have been allies, while Putin’s Russia has stood on the opposite side. Europe and the US share basic ideals about democracy, human rights and individual freedoms. Now Trump is increasingly aligning himself with the leader of a country that has steadily dismantled a fledgling democracy; one where and critics of the president die in mysterious circumstances, where government-sanctioned attacks against LGBT citizens have sent people fleeing, where opposition politicians run away for their lives.
Despite this, Trump has dismissed criticism of his Putin-friendly statements by arguing that it’s better for America to have Russia as a friend than a foe. What he appears to be pursuing, however, is not simply restored relations with Moscow, but the overturning of decades of purposeful American policy in a way that fulfills the geopolitical aspirations of Putin’s Russia. This is not the art of the deal, it is surrender.
Of course, we still don’t know what Trump will do once in office, particularly since some of his own nominees disagree vehemently with his stance on Russia.
For example, Gen. James Mattis, the likely secretary of defense, got it right during his Senate confirmation when he explained that, “…the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with (in) Mr. Putin.” Putin, he said, “is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.” Mattis prescribed, “working with allies to defend ourselves where we must.”
Indeed, if Putin aims to destroy the European Union and NATO, he won’t need weapons. Trump will be doing it for him if his policies match his utterances, instead of the admonitions of key players like Mattis.
What might that look like? For one thing, Trump has repeatedly hinted at plans to lift sanctions imposed by the West after Russian forces seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and sent unmarked Russian soldiers into eastern Ukraine to foment a civil war there. This has raised anxiety among Russia’s closest neighbors – an alarm shared even in Western Europe. Europeans saw what Putin did in Ukraine and fear the US would do nothing to stop Putin from creating havoc in their countries.
(Pro-Russian positions, it’s worth noting, were hallmarks of the Trump presidential campaign. Back when the campaign was led by Paul Manafort — who has close ties with the pro-Russian side of Ukrainian politics – the Trump campaign forced the Republican Party to change its platform, removing both criticism of Russia and vows to support Ukrainian independence.)
Not surprisingly, Europe, is preparing for the possibility of life without the close ties with the United States, which were forged in the ashes of World War II. Merkel said, “There is no eternal guarantee for a close cooperation” in trans-Atlantic relations. “We Europeans,” she declared, “have our fate in our own hands.”
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The possible fracturing of a 70-year-old alliance – a mighty economic, political and military bloc – would be a huge loss for Europe and a spectacular victory for Putin. But it would also constitute a historic loss for the United States.
America’s strength derives not only from the size of its military forces, but also from the power of its alliances and its ideas. Trump, if he follows through on his disruptive threats, would make the United States a weaker country–one that does not enjoy the support of the greatest military alliance in history, which has put the US at the center of a powerful family of nations that share views on economic, social and political freedoms.
Sure, getting along with Putin would be nice, but not at the expense of America’s values; not at the cost of weakening America. Not at the cost of betraying America’s true friends.