President Donald Trump is hoping Europe will give him a second chance.
This week, he heads to Poland at the invitation of its president and to participate in a regional infrastructure summit and to Hamburg, Germany, for the G-20 summit. The trip offers the chance for redemption after a catastrophic visit to Brussels in May that left the NATO alliance hanging by a thread because of his refusal to endorse Article 5, NATO’s mutual defense clause.
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G-20 summits are usually sleepy affairs, especially in recent years, but this occasion is replete with geopolitical intrigue. The trip is ambitious and difficult. I spoke with six serving officials, all off the record, and 10 recent officials and senior experts from the United States, Europe and Asia for this article. The overwhelming view is that the trip is finely poised between success and failure, with the outcome depending largely on whether Trump listens to his mainstream advisers or indulges his nationalist and America First impulses. The risks can be cast into three baskets—the Poland visit, the Trump-Putin meeting and the G-20 summit.
At first glance, Poland offers Trump an opportunity to repair the damage of the Brussels visit by demonstrating his commitment to the security of Eastern Europe. Trump is also likely to be greeted positively in Warsaw, which should provide a useful counterpoint to what are likely to be massive public protests in Hamburg. He could have gone to the Baltics, which are terrified of Russian belligerence and desperate for more American help, but that could have been viewed negatively by Vladimir Putin. He could have gone to Romania, but its president recently visited the White House. So, Poland it is. However, this is not why the Polish government thinks Trump is going to Warsaw.
Trump chose Poland, the Poles believe, because he is ideologically aligned with its ultraconservative Law and Justice Party government, which is under fire in Europe for eroding the rule of law and for its hostility to multiculturalism and liberal values. Jeremy Shapiro, a former Obama White House official who is director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations and has spoken with Polish officials and experts in recent weeks, told me that Polish officials see Trump’s visit as a “vote of confidence” and “an opportunity to form a bilateral ‘special relationship’ with the administration.”
The Poles also believe Trump is making a big strategic gambit to throw his weight behind their Three Seas Initiative, which brings together 12 countries in Central and Eastern Europe from the Adriatic, Black and Baltic seas to develop regional infrastructure to reduce their energy dependence on Russia. The initiative, which was created a year ago by Poland and Croatia in Dubrovnik, is meeting in Warsaw to discuss how to make that ambition a reality. They are particularly hopeful that the Warsaw summit will see a deal with Trump on exports of Liquefied Natural Gas that could undermine Nordstream 2, the German-Russian energy pipeline that has proven particularly divisive in Europe.
Poland’s neighbors see another dimension to the Three Seas. One former German official told me that Poland is seeking to resurrect a pre-World War II Polish plan known as Intermarium whereby Poland would seek to unite Central and Eastern Europe under Polish leadership and then counterbalance German leadership to the west and Russia to the east. A current senior German official told me that for Germany, “what happens in Warsaw is at least as interesting as what happens at the G-20 in Poland.” German and French officials are worried that Trump might use the visit to drive a wedge between “new” and “old” Europe, reprising the strategy pursued by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the run-up to the Iraq War of 2003.
It’s not just the Germans. Poland’s gambit is controversial elsewhere in the region, too. A former senior official from another Three Seas member state told me, “I worry he might give [governing Law and Justice Party chief Jaroslaw] Kaczynski and [Hungary’s far-right President Viktor] Orban a boost, a bad reprise of Rumsfeld’s ‘old’ vs ‘new’ Europe, but this time not because we were supportive of the U.S. on the war on terror but because those two are nativist Euroskeptics.” He said that some Three Seas states are solidly behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are welcoming of refugees and are “in no way interested in getting involved in Trump’s fights.”
A Trump administration official told me the administration has no intention of recreating the old-versus-new Europe divide. But Europeans are wary of the precedent set by Trump’s infamous Brussels speech, in which the “axis of adults” in the administration inserted an explicit endorsement of NATO’s commitment to collective self-defense, only for Trump and his closest advisers to take it out at the last minute.
A senior Polish official said German fears are overblown. “It is impossible and undesirable,” he told me, to counterbalance Germany. “Poland wants American support for infrastructural investment”—period. However, he acknowledged that some in Washington may have a different agenda. “We are obviously aware,” he said, of Trump’s “criticism of Angela Merkel and the EU. We are critical also, but we need the EU and do not want to see it dissolved.” He acknowledged the Polish government didn’t know Trump’s real intentions.
The danger, warns Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, is that Poland may be stumbling into a diplomatic catastrophe. It may not want to divide Europe, but some in the Trump administration might see an opportunity to do so. “Why,” wonders Buras, “is an American president invited to attend a regional infrastructural conference? Why not the secretary of energy or an official from the State Department?” The Three Seas Summit, he says, has to be viewed in the context of Poland’s troubled relationship with France and Germany. “If Trump wanted to drive a wedge [between new and old Europe], he could do it,” Buras says. “He could appeal to Polish national pride, he could praise it as a special ally that meets its 2 percent defense spending target, and he could use the summit to criticize Germany and the EU.”
Warsaw, then, could well become the next stage in the battle between the president and the “axis of adults.” National security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis may see the Poland trip as nothing more than an occasion to demonstrate America’s commitment to NATO. This would be a real accomplishment. A former senior U.S. official told me the Europeans should recognize the positive side to the visit—after a lifetime of ambiguity toward Eastern Europe, Trump is demonstrating a commitment to the region. But, as Buras suggests, the president’s nationalist advisers, particularly Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, could use the trip to undermine the EU and empower nationalists in Europe. Trump’s instincts are much closer to Bannon’s than they are to McMaster’s—so when he shows up in Warsaw, he may be willing to go along with the nationalists, as he was in Brussels. And this is what has Europe on tenterhooks.
2. The Putin Meeting
Trump will be sitting down with Putin for the first time, a meeting that has been highly anticipated—and, for some, dreaded. The Associated Press reported last week that the Trump administration was deeply divided on whether to do the summit. According to the report, Trump and some of his closest aides “have been pressing for a full bilateral meeting. He’s calling for media access and all the typical protocol associated with such sessions, even as officials within the State Department and National Security Council urge more restraint.”
Clearly, Trump prevailed—further evidence that the president remains committed to forging a partnership with the Kremlin strongman, who he’s praised as “very smart” and defended from allegations of killing journalists. In fact, the administration has been laying the groundwork for this meeting for months. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to Moscow in March was widely misinterpreted as a showdown with Russia because it came on the back of a pinprick strike on Bashar Assad’s air force in Syria, but it laid the groundwork for a reset 2.0. The two countries agreed to set up a joint task force to address “irritants which have dogged our relations over the last couple of years, particularly under the administration of President Obama,” as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it. Trump also broke with precedent and granted Lavrov a meeting in the Oval Office during which he shared highly classified intelligence with him.
The reset continues apace. According to press reports, Trump has asked his team to come up with a list of concessions that could be offered to Putin in Hamburg, including the return of two compounds in Maryland and New York that the Obama administration stripped from Russia as part of a sanctions package. Less clear is what Trump wants in return.
The fears of the State Department and National Security Council are well founded. Putin, a former KGB officer who specialized in what the Russians call “political technology,” is the arch manipulator—“deft at psyching people out” as a former U.S. official put it—and his meetings with foreign leaders are frequently notable occasions. Putin brought his Labrador, Konni, to his first meeting with Merkel, who has a lifelong fear of dogs. In his first meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy, he personally threatened to “smash” the French leader “to pieces,” leaving him dazed and confused in the news conference that followed. Famously, Putin bonded with George W. Bush over their shared Christianity by telling him a story about how his crucifix was blessed by his mother in Jerusalem and was subsequently the only item to survive a fire in the family Dacha. This tale infamously prompted Bush to say he saw into Putin’s soul.
One former senior Bush administration official who dealt with Putin told me there is a risk that Putin might trick Trump into doing a deal on Syria and Ukraine in the meeting. The agreement might last only a few days before it became clear that it was a bad deal. Such a scenario would likely expose divisions within the Trump administration and discredit the president, and it could also heighten his suspicion of his own government, which Trump would perceive as undermining his partnership with the Russian president. Even if it did not last the week, it would be a major win for Putin. The Germans were worried about Trump striking a deal with Putin early on—one senior German official told me they became less worried after the early Cabinet appointments, but now they are concerned again.
One question is whether Trump will bring up the matter of the Russian attack on the U.S. political system in 2016 and the continuing threat Russian capabilities and intentions pose to future U.S. elections. A second is whether Trump will talk about the Russian threat to Western democracies in his public remarks, particularly in Poland. The Polish government may have broken with its predecessors on most foreign policy matters but it still fears Russia just as much. A Polish official told me that Polish officials would like to see Russia discussed “in as much detail as possible,” but they don’t necessarily expect it, given Trump’s track record. The Poles will take any mention of Article 5 as a win and declare victory. But failure to elaborate on why Russia is a threat will undermine any claim by the administration that the visit is about bolstering NATO.
It is inconceivable that any other American president would not use a speech in Poland in 2017 to talk about the danger from Russia, but Trump is unique. Lost amid the uproar over his refusal to endorse Article 5 in Brussels was the fact that Russia was not on the agenda at the NATO mini-summit or in the bilateral meetings with European leaders. After a barrage of criticism, Trump relented and finally endorsed Article 5 after his meeting with the Romanian president in June, but only in response to a question. Given his track record of indecisiveness and reversing himself on policy, his Cabinet and allies alike are keen to see him elaborate on Article 5 in a formal speech.
3. The G-20 Summit
The first question surrounding the G-20 is whether there will be violence. The summit will take place in the Schanzenviertel, a district of Hamburg that was a historic home for German counterculture, including violent, left-wing radicalism. It is now a trendy area populated by upmarket bars and restaurants, but the symbolism of hosting the world committee for capitalism in the spiritual home of radicalism could be too much for some. A German official told me that having the G-20 in that particular district will be seen as a major provocation by left-wing radicals and they may well feel obliged to respond. It is hard to imagine a worse venue from a security perspective.
In recent weeks, there have been glimpses of what might happen. On June 20, there was a series of coordinated arson attacks on passenger rail lines in 12 locations throughout Germany. German officials believe this to have been a trial run for the summit. Cyberattacks to cut power in Hamburg have also occurred. There will be mass protests too, but the German hosts have gone to great lengths to insulate the world leaders, particularly Trump, from them—there is some distance between the designated protest areas and the meetings. The only way Trump might hear them will be on cable news.
Substantively, the G-20 is waiting to see whether Trump is accommodating himself to the international economic order or whether he is determined to disrupt it. The G-20 operates along two tracks—finance ministers and leaders. The last meeting of the finance ministers was at Baden Baden, Germany, in March. It did not go well. The Trump administration insisted on removing standard language about resisting protectionism, and it even rejected proposed compromise language from German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble on respecting rules-based institutions. The damage was largely undone at the G-7 summit in Sicily and a meeting of the International Monetary Fund’s International Monetary and Financial Committee, when the American side took a more constructive approach. However, the legacy of the Baden Baden meeting means that trade has been elevated to the leaders level—meaning it will be front and center in Hamburg.
Doug Rediker, a former member of the executive board of the IMF, says that most countries hope the Hamburg summit builds on the progress made in Sicily but that anything could happen, particularly because countries not represented at the G-7, like China and India, will want their say.
And then there is Trump. Opposition to trade and the open global economy has been a consistent theme of his for over 30 years. “The G-20,” Rediker says, “is his opportunity to flex some muscle. It is unlikely he would not launch some fireworks given it is the largest stage there is.”
The spark could come if Trump uses a Department of Commerce investigation to declare that steel imports hurt U.S. national security, and slaps tariffs on steel from U.S. allies, particularly Canada, Japan and Germany. Other governments have promised retaliatory measures, and there are fears that Trump, with a lifelong hostility to free trade, may welcome the opportunity to wage a trade war.
One additional wrinkle is that Trump looks likely to use the prospect of steel tariffs to pressure other G-20 members to join the United States in a unified front against China economically. Germany, France, South Korea and even the United Kingdom are unlikely to go along, given their close economic ties to China.
The rest of the formal agenda is unlikely to see greater comity. Merkel will seek support for her initiative to promote greater stability in North Africa to ease migration flows to Europe, but Trump may well dismiss it as wasteful foreign aid.
Interestingly, the Western Europeans seem likely to downplay the climate issue. They know where Trump stands and do not want to take a confrontational stance. They would like the summit, and the trip, to repair the damage done during Trump’s visit to Europe in June, when the G-7 summit was dominated by disagreements over the Paris climate accord. French President Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to Trump to attend the July 14 Bastille celebrations in Paris, which is also the centennial of the U.S. entry into World War I, should be seen in this light.
The formal agenda may well take second place to informal geopolitics—a perennial feature of the G-20, because whenever world leaders meet, they will find a way to informally discuss the most important issues of the day. All will be trying to find a way to influence Trump. As David Gordon, a former director of policy planning for the Bush administration, put it, Trump tends to get on well one-on-one with world leaders, except for Europeans. “Europeans are the outliers,” he says, “because Trump sees them as free riders, and European domestic politics means they cannot praise and flatter Trump as some others might.” That Macron is fresh from multiple electoral successes may present him with an opportunity to develop a personal relationship with Trump.
Asia is no easier. In the first few months of his administration, Trump basically adopted a North Korea-centric Asia strategy that handed all the leverage to Beijing. He reduced U.S. operations in the South China Sea and suggested he would give China a say in his Taiwan policy as long as it continued to cooperate on North Korea. U.S. allies, including Japan, were growing anxious. Now, it appears as if Trump’s “patience” in relying on China’s President Xi Jinping to solve the North Korea problem is exhausted. An arms sale to Taiwan and a new freedom of navigation operation suggest Trump may finally be taking a broader view of Asia strategy—though many problems remain, including the lack of a positive economic agenda for the region, a flirtation with a trade war and the failure to appoint senior officials on Asia, which has badly depleted U.S. diplomatic power. The G-20 summit was going to provide some clues as to the direction of Trump’s Asia policy, but North Korea’s Fourth of July intercontinental ballistic missile test dramatically raises the stakes. One question that arises is whether the heightened threat from North Korea provides Xi with an opportunity to use his personal relationship with Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to persuade them to flip back toward China.
I asked Renmin University professor Shi Yinhong, one of China’s most astute observers of world affairs, for his assessment. He said Trump “lacks imagination in China policy,” and he expects him to ramble on about North Korea and threaten Xi with secondary sanctions on China. Xi will, he said, try “to maintain the image of a quite friendly” or “special relationship between him and Trump.” However, “this would not prevent Xi” from playing the role of defending the “liberal world trade order” and the Paris climate change accord. Xi would draw sharp contrasts with Trump on these two issues, Shi said.
Shi identifies the major question hanging over the G-20 summit: Does the United States still want to be the leader of the postwar international order? The vast majority of member states, with the major exceptions of China and Russia, hope the answer is yes. They are prepared to make it easy for the United States to affirm its historic leadership role. But they really have very little idea what Trump will do.
Trump’s forthcoming visit to Europe could be a success. He could stay above the fray in Poland, praising his hosts but refraining from attacking Germany and expressing support for the European Union. He could heed his advisers’ warnings and limit his interaction with Putin. He could build on the G-7 talks on trade and show he supports a healthy global economic order. He could even use the five days between the G-20 and his appearance in Paris to visit U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of returning home.
For most presidents, success would be well within reach. But Trump is no ordinary president. He is unique in every way. He is unique ideologically in that he is the only U.S. president to object to the postwar liberal international order, especially on trade, alliances and values. He is unique temperamentally, becoming a sycophant when praised and an enemy when slighted. His foreign counterparts will remember how he was manipulated by Saudi Arabia into siding with Riyadh against Qatar over the objections of his secretary of state. And he is unique in how he processes information. He has a short attention span, a limited interest in detailed briefings and a fondness for cable news. The pattern is fairly clear by now. Most of the time, his mainstream advisers can box him in, but it is hardest when he is center stage, either in a crisis or on a foreign trip. Poland and Hamburg provide the next test.