Donald Trump Is Sucking Up and Selling Out to Putin

The Donald might be talking tough, but he’s on his knees in front of Russia if he betrays the Western alliance. And that’s what he’s doing.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Not long ago, I was sitting with the foreign minister of a European NATO country and thought I might, after a long discussion on Russia, Ukraine, ISIS, and Syrian refugees, bring up the subject of Donald J. Trump. At that exact moment, a puffy orange cloud migrated across an overhanging television screen above a CNN chyron (“Trump: Cruz’s Wife ‘Attractive’” or some such), causing the diplomat to lean back in his chair, throw his hands up and say matter-of-factly: “It’s the end of the West.”

The Spenglerian decline-and-fall argument has always been with us, just as every successive generation will always feel an abstract nostalgia for the misremembered glories of its parents’ or grandparents’ era. There is no such thing as a Golden Age or a Bronze Age or an End of History because things are never that that good or that bad; one’s perspective is only altered with the comfort of hindsight and the scholastic need to classify long, transformative stretches of time. And yet… There is something about Trump talking to the New York Times’ David Sanger and Maggie Haberman about American nuclear silos “rusted so badly that they don’t even know if the rockets are going to pour out” that makes one feel as if the West may truly be entering its sell-by date.

It’s not that the world is coming to an end, necessarily, although it may well do that, with or without the assistance of a narcissistic Manhattan real estate mogul with his finger on the button. It’s that much of what citizens of liberal democracies have taken for granted since the end of World War II may be about to be upended irrevocably.

Asked about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s suspension or arrest of 50,000 people following an abortive coup, Trump says that he admires the Turkish president’s doggedness in hanging onto power by whatever means are at his disposal and isn’t much bothered by who or what gets trampled along the way. America is in no position to judge on human rights or due process because, Trump explains, “Just look about what’s happening with our country. How are we going to lecture when people are shooting our policemen in cold blood? How are we going to lecture when you see the riots and the horror going on in our own country?”

I expect this sort of whataboutist moral equivalence from Ayatollah Khamenei’s Twitter feed, Vladimir Putin’s annual press conferences, and the keyboards of the youngest freelancer contributors to Salon. But what to say of a prospective commander-in-chief who makes a masturbatory hand gesture when asked about a NATO ally’s political and social disintegration?

Further to that point, Trump seems to believe that the world’s oldest military alliance is only as important as a member-state’s Accounts Payable status. For a man who has repeatedly declared bankruptcy, cheated contractors and put many others out of work, Trump is certainly obsessed with “bills.” And he seems to think that the United States is NATO’s Slomin’s Shield; if you don’t pay a monthly installment, your house can go ahead and get burgled.

Would the United States come to the defense of the Baltic States if they were invaded or attacked by Russia, Haberman asks him. Have they fulfilled their obligations to us?” Trump answers. “If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”

Without specifying what these obligations are, Trump declines to say when the answer might be “no” or whether or not, as president, he’d endorse an Article V resolution to rescue Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania if “little green men” or paratroopers or Spetsnaz descended upon them.

I think we can be reasonably assured that he would not, given what one of his GOP cheerleaders, prospective vice presidential consideration and mind-melded anti-Muslim bigot Newt Gingrich has just told CBS This Morning: “Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg… I’m not sure I would risk nuclear war.”

Is Maine in the suburbs of Quebec? It may soon wish it was, depending on how Nov. 8 shakes out. But there is no understating what is now happening: A political party that once campaigned almost exclusively on American power projection and national security has just given license to a revanchist adversary to sow mischief across its borders and face no serious repercussions.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the Baltics recently, particularly Estonia where, even before Trump’s unprecedented comments, there was a great deal of anxiety that Americans would not be willing to “die for Narva,” a popular refrain one heard from the realist school of the Washington foreign policy establishment in the months following Putin’s seizure of Crimea. (Narva is an Estonian border city where ethnic Russians predominate, even if they have no desire to be invaded or annexed by their next-door neighbor.)

Would Americans die for Narva? What an ugly and stupid question. Estonians have already died for New York.

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Having only joined NATO three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, and having not lost any citizens to al Qaeda, Estonia deployed a 150-man battlegroup to Afghanistan. That may not sound like a lot, but it is for a country of a million people.

As President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a New Jersey native and former Estonian ambassador to the United States, told me today, “We suffered, per capita, one of the highest casualty rates of anyone in Afghanistan, with a company smack in the middle of Taliban-land in Helmand province. I visited our guys in a low-flying, Taliban fire-evading helicopter. The Brits and Americans thought the Estonian president was nuts.”

Estonia is also one of five of the 28 NATO member states to actually spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense, as stipulated as a guideline but not an ironclad requirement. (No, it does not pay this money into American coffers, as Trump seems to think it should.) “Estonia’s commitment to our NATO obligations is beyond doubt, and so should be the commitments by others,” Foreign Minister Marina Kaljurand emailed me, in response to Trump’s Times interview.

Latvia and Lithuania have similarly contributed troops to the Afghan war effort, in keeping with their allied obligations. But hey, President Trump can simply refer them to the collection agencies and wish them luck if shit hits the fan. I hear they’re quite proficient at partisan warfare.