Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Donald Trump came to Helsinki to clear his name of collusion. Instead he soiled it and with it, dragged the world further down a path toward previously unthinkable instability.
It is 70 years since the future of the western democratic alliance has been so precariously and ambiguously poised between chaos and certainty.
Standing next to Putin following their secretive two-hour meeting, it seemed the pair wanted nothing more than deny they ever knew each other before Trump’s election.
Yet in a rare fumble, Putin admitted he wanted Trump to win the tarnished 2016 US election that his, Putin’s intelligence agents are indicted with interfering in. “Yes I did” he told a stunned audience.
This perhaps was not so much a concession, rather an overexuberance born not out of his KGB training that teaches always to remain in control of emotions, but of a job well done: undermining his biggest global adversary, setting in motion fractures that will further cleave America from its traditional allies.
As Putin left Helsinki, his foreign minister captured the Russian mood, calling the day “magnificent” and “better than super.”
Only days earlier, Donald Trump had sat in Winston Churchill’s chair in the house where the great British wartime leader was born.
He struck a pose that suggested he was reliving those moments where Churchill’s resolve was all that stood between the chaos and calamity.
It feels appropriate to paraphrase Britain’s best-loved leader to understand President Trump’s utter failure to deliver on US national security interests and that of its allies in Helsinki.
Never before in the field of presidential summits has one leader given so much for so little at the cost of so many.
Trump’s capitulation to Putin’s lies on live TV watched by millions across the world is sending diplomatic shock waves way beyond Washington.
In the hours following the summit, there was the stunning sound of silence from Trump’s European allies.
Had he stood up to Putin and warned him not to attack the US by interfering in its elections again there may we’ll have been more applause from Berlin and London. Russia stands accused of interfering in elections in these countries too. A message for one, a message for all.
Leaving Washington last week, Trump said his meeting with Putin would be the easiest of his trip to Europe – easier than his meetings at NATO or in the UK.
No one could have imagined that his seven days in Europe – ripping through his allies, lambasting German chancellor Angela Merkel and undermining British Prime Minister Theresa May – would end with him being given a football by Putin that he’ll pass on to his son.
Not only has Trump betrayed US intelligence services – not so much putting America first, but putting himself first – he is betraying his allies.
If he doesn’t believe his own intelligence services, the logic follows: how can he be trusted to believe his allies’ intelligence services and what those leaders tell him?
How can they harness their national strategic security interests to the US if Trump doesn’t look out for his own and they have no idea where he is going?
This is not the America they signed up to partner with.
Trump’s recent confrontations over trade tariffs, his offhand comments this weekend that the EU “is a foe” of the United States, now coupled with the denouement of his diplomatic integrity at Putin’s feet, will look to many like the start of a new world order.
As bipartisan opprobrium rains down on Trump in the US, his European allies are beginning to crystallize their thinking.
At NATO headquarters, Trump indicated he was way more inclined to side with Putin over his illegal 2014 annexation of Crimea than his allies.
When asked at a news conference last Thursday if he would “recognize Russia’s Crimea as part of Russia” he responded: “that an interesting question, because long before I got here President Obama let that happen.”
His allies had heard that line before. But what came next was the shocker: the idea that Putin had spent money in Crimea might somehow give him legitimacy: “they just opened a big bridge that was started years ago. They built, I think, a submarine port adding billions of dollars,” Trump told the crowded room.
A minute later he was asked: “will you consider stopping military exercises in the Baltic states?”
When Trump met North Korean dictator Kim Jong UN in Singapore last month, he surprised his South Korean allies by unilaterally giving Kim the concession of stopping joint military exercises.
The equivalent for NATO would be backing down on joint military exercises in the Baltic states Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
They are on the front line with Russia and fear their own Crimea moment may be around he corner.
NATO has a tripwire force in each of the Baltic states: about a thousand or so troops to send a figurative flare should there be a Russian incursion, as happened in Ukraine. At which point, tens of thousands more NATO forces currently on 48 hours’ standby in Europe would be rushed in. Significant, but not really enough of a threat to a serious Russian assault.
Trump hinted at Thursday’s news conference that this deployment and the bigger NATO military exercises they support could be cut down. “Well, perhaps we’ll talk about that,” he said in answer to the question.
A response guaranteed to send shock waves though the already jittery Baltic states, who only escaped the brutal ugliness of Soviet repression a quarter-century ago.
The following day when standing next to British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump was again asked about the US military commitment to Europe.
His response: “There is a psychological and a military benefit. There is also a benefit not to do it.” Hardly the ringing endorsement America’s European allies would hope for, and more reason for worry as he headed to Helsinki.
If US troop deployments, military exercises or Crimea came up during Putin and Trump’s meeting, neither of them mentioned it during their press conference.
Absent an independent readout of what was actually discussed in that room, Trump’s allies cannot feel reassured their interests are being considered.
Since Trump’s election last year, many of his European allies have been showing increasing concern about his destabilizing impact on global stability.
At the EU’s first emergency summit to discuss concerns about Trump – held days after his inauguration – both the German Chancellor and the then-French President talked of Europe no longer being able to rely on US leadership.
European rumblings of dissatisfaction have only grown since then. Climate, trade and now security are the dangerous chasms opening up after 70 years of bumping along together.
During those decades, America has been a stabilizing force for good over historic European divisions.
If the Helsinki summit does becomes a crystallizing moment in the direction of nations, and Trump’s follies force old allies apart, it may also be judged the moment a new, more unstable world order was created.
Not the achievement for which this great city, revered for advancing human rights and stabilizing global relations, was previously known.