(FILES) In this file photo taken on May 17, 2018 US President Donald Trump (R) meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, DC. NATO leaders face a major threat to the credibility of their military alliance at their summit on July 11, 2018 -- not from traditional foe Russia, but from the head of their most powerful member, US President Donald Trump. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM Image Credit: AFP

United States President Donald Trump’s next two summits, first with Nato allies in Brussels, then with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, will either restore American global leadership or kill it off, depending on how he plays his hand.

Unity at Nato, followed by a firm encounter with Putin, would demonstrate American resolve to stand with allies and stand up to strategic competitors. Or Trump could squander all the leverage of the US by abusing and dividing its allies, then lavishing praise on someone he admires, who is set on undermining America’s global position. It all depends which President Trump shows up in Brussels and Helsinki — the one 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 America has with Russia requires leader-to-leader talks.

The Trump team, led on alliance issues by US 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 $14.4 billion (Dh52.96 billion) since Trump took office (increases began under former US president 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.

Rather than thrash allies, the US 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 Moscow may have, should strengthen Trump’s hand at Helsinki.

The leverage Nato gives Trump at the Putin summit might 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 and America doesn’t need them.

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

A population that 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 those costly deployments, along with sanctions and low-to-zero growth, Putin’s government is broke. He has run through half of the sovereign wealth 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 15 per cent or more; and last week, the Russian Duma had to raise value-added taxes and the pension age to increase revenue.

Putin, therefore, needs more from the US 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 he doesn’t have to pay for a new generation of weapons. He wants the US out of Syria so that Russian forces can take over the eastern oilfields we now protect, and use income from those fields to pay for the war, among other motives. He knows that Russia’s financial situation needs to improve.

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

— New York Times News Service

Victoria Nuland is the former US assistant secretary of state for European Affairs. She served as the principal deputy foreign policy adviser to former US vice-president Dick Cheney.