President Trump’s meeting in Helsinki with Russian president Vladimir Putin was… a lot.
All said, the meeting was a pretty clear win for Putin. Trump publicly dismissed the unanimous assessment of the US intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election, choosing instead to—once again—favor Putin’s denials on the subject. (Trump has since flipped on this point.) Nevermind that all of this took place as 12 Russian intelligence officers were recently indicted for charges related to election interference—interference that appears to be ongoing. Trump apparently believes this is all worth glossing over because Russia has nuclear weapons.
You heard that right. Trump apparently sees an adversary’s possession of nuclear weapons as excusing even attacks on American democracy. This seems pretty clearly to the disadvantage of American interests. But, just in case you’re unconvinced, here are three reasons why:
- Failure to hold an adversarial state (Russia) accountable for actions against the United States while crediting that inaction to their possession of nuclear weapons may embolden other nuclear powers. Trump’s treatment of Russia suggests a willingness to give nuclear-armed powers latitude in pursuing their interests, even when those interests threaten the central affairs of the United States. If you view Russia, China, or North Korea as an adversary—or even a potential adversary—this should worry you. With the perception of lowered American response, will Russia pursue even greater aggression in Ukraine? Will China ramp up its militarization of the South China Sea? Will North Korea seek greater concessions for its vague promises of eventual denuclearization? I don’t know. But the president’s hesitancy to even modestly stand up to Russia makes such actions more likely.
- Similarly, failing to stand up to a foreign power acting against the United States lessens the benefit allies can expect from siding with the United States. Trump’s Helsinki meeting with Putin didn’t happen in isolation. It followed, by all accounts, a combative NATO summit. The president badgered US allies for not spending enough on collective defense, claiming that they owe the United States ‘a tremendous amount of money.’ Then, after the summit, Trump cast further doubt on the strength of the NATO alliance by questioning why Americans should agree to defend its allies (specifically Montenegro, the newest NATO member). By undermining an alliance that has proven its resolve in standing with the United States after 9/11—the first and only time NATO’s collective defense provision has been invoked—Trump hurts American interests. After all, the American sphere of influence has spread in no small part due to its cultivation of alliances around the world. Hurting those alliances hurts the ability of the United States to advance its interests.
- Deferring to the interests of nuclear powers makes the acquisition of nuclear weapons more attractive. North Korea has shown that, once a country acquires a nuclear capability, it can gain the legitimacy of a one-on-one meeting with (and extract concessions from) the President of the United States without making meaningful concessions of its own. Contrast this with Trump’s treatment of Iran. Since becoming President, Trump has unilaterally withdrawn from the six-party Iran deal. He has re-imposed sanctions on Iran. And, most recently, he’s threatened it with what is presumably the use of military, even nuclear, force. The determining factor in how the US treats North Korea versus Iran? North Korea’s nuclear weapons, of course. Even the notoriously hawkish Senator Tom Cotton has said as much. As Slate rightly points out, Cotton’s comments are a rational argument for the benefits of being a nuclear power. Now, is the proper counter the embrace of nuclear brinksmanship? No. But neither is deference to the interests of nuclear powers. The United States has competed with its nuclear adversaries for as long as it’s had nuclear adversaries. No reason to stop now.
To be sure, Trump’s concessions to Russia and North Korea may be attributable to other rationale — his love of authoritarians in general, perhaps. But even the perception that those concessions are bolstered by the possession of nuclear weapons can hurt the United States. The president’s words and actions in Helsinki increased the risk of emboldening great power rivals, alienating allies, and incentivizing the acquisition of nuclear weapons. His well-documented fixation on nuclear weapons, in this case, has acted as a blinder to sensible policy. The United States can respond to any crisis through diplomatic, economic, or military means that fall well short of risking nuclear war. The United States has even employed a number of these means — revocation of diplomatic facilities, sanctions, transfer of military aid, etc. — versus Russia. But Trump’s comments in Helsinki didn’t reflect that. They diminished America’s reputation for resolve in dealing with adversarial states. The damage is done, but the repercussions remain to be seen.