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THE BOTTOM LINE

Trump's upcoming summits will make or break US

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump's next two summits - first with Nato allies in Brussels; then with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland - will either restore American global leadership or kill it off, depending on how he plays our hand.

Unity at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, followed by a firm encounter with Mr Putin, would demonstrate American resolve to stand with allies and stand up to strategic competitors. Or Mr Trump could squander all the power and leverage of the United States by abusing and dividing our allies, then lavishing praise and freebies on an autocrat whom he admires - and who is set on undermining our democracy and global position. It all depends on which President Trump shows up in Brussels and Helsinki - the one whom his national security adviser says wants a strong Nato, or the man who regularly calls Nato "obsolete".

Traditionally, an American president gains when he meets a Kremlin boss with the wind of allied unity at his back. If he uses the Nato meeting to coordinate his message to Moscow, he multiplies the impact by speaking for dozens of free countries, not just America. And a Trump-Putin summit is overdue. The mountain of problems that we have with Russia requires leader-to-leader talks because Mr Putin has neutered decision-making at all other levels of his government.

The Trump team, led on alliance issues by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, is poised to have a successful Nato summit if the president can take "yes" for an answer. The combined defence budget of Nato nations has grown by US$14.4 billion since Mr Trump took office (increases began under Barack Obama). All but one of 28 allies are increasing spending, and 26 are sending more troops to Nato missions. Sixteen are on track to spend 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on defence by 2024 - Nato's target.

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Rather than thrash allies, the president should celebrate this success, take credit for it and accelerate bilateral work to help close remaining spending gaps. Other Nato achievements worth celebrating include two new military commands that will increase the readiness of alliance forces and speed deployments. These moves, directed against any further territorial ambitions that Moscow may have, should strengthen Mr Trump's hand at Helsinki.

The leverage that Nato gives Mr Trump at the Putin summit will be wasted, however, if the message from Brussels mirrors the president's presentation at the Group of Seven meeting last month: Allies are feckless free-riders, America doesn't need them and it's the planet's autocrats who deserve our respect.

Mr Putin, the biggest winner from any disunity in Nato, is counting on the second outcome. The only additional thing that he needs to make his Helsinki meeting a success is money. Here, Mr Trump is holding a hand nearly as strong as Ronald Reagan's in 1982 - if he plays it right. Mr Putin survives on a governance model that requires US$60 per barrel oil, total political control of his citizenry and a kleptocratic stranglehold on the economy. The reform that Russia needs is impossible without more power-sharing than he will allow.

BROKE

A population he once intoxicated with military deployments in Crimea and Syria now cares most about improvements in Russia's hospitals, according to recent polls. And after four years of costly deployments, along with sanctions and low-to-zero growth, Mr Putin's government is broke. He has run through half of the sovereign wealth that Russia saved in the oil boom of his first two terms as president, starting in 2000; the cost of living has increased for most Russians by at least 15 per cent; and last week, the Russian Duma raised value-added taxes and the pension age to increase revenue.

Mr Putin, therefore, needs more from the United States and the West than we need from him. He needs sanctions relief. He needs direct foreign investment and trade. He needs the New Start nuclear accord extended when it expires in 2021 so that he does not have to pay for a new generation of weapons. He wants the United States out of Syria so that Russian forces can take over the eastern oil fields that we now protect, and use income from those fields to pay for the war, among other motives. He knows that if Russia's financial situation does not improve, he could be presiding over a 21st century "Upper Volta with rockets", as Dean Acheson once called the Soviet Union.

This gives Mr Trump considerable leverage in Helsinki if he plays our hand strongly, as Mr Reagan would have. Rather than ceding Crimea, forgiving Mr Putin's interference in our elections and offering sanctions relief free, Mr Trump - with Nato at his back - can make American diplomacy great again if he demonstrates to Mr Putin that normal relations with us require civilised global behaviour by Russia. The alternative - a Nato in tatters and a re-energised Mr Putin - would leave America weaker and Mr Trump the loser in the great power competition that he himself has declared. NYTIMES

  • The writer, a 32-year veteran of the United States Foreign Service, is the chief executive of the Center for a New American Security