The telltale sign that Trump messed up was a clarification later from a “senior administration official” that Trump didn’t mean to cast doubt on the United States’ steadfast support for NATO. So who are allies supposed to believe — the president or his advisers? For months now, Trump’s vice president, secretary of state, defense secretary and national security adviser have bent over backward trying to confirm our commitment to NATO. In just one appearance, Trump undid months of work and handed Russia’s Vladimir Putin a symbolic victory.
Perhaps he was peeved at being scolded over leaks that revealed British intelligence regarding the Manchester terrorist bombing. That, in conjunction with his disclosure about the location of our subs to the president of the Philippines and giving out Israeli intelligence to the Russians, underscores that the fumbling Trump administration cannot be fully trusted.
Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute argues, “The failure to reconfirm Article V of the NATO charter — a failure to meet an explicit expectation — becomes the headline of the whole trip, especially in the context of the browbeating he administered in the speech. This trip, above all, was meant to reassure allies around the world that, after [former president Barack] Obama, the United States would again be a reliable partner.” He adds, “Trump is not ‘leading from behind’ but kicking our allies in the [rear end].”
The head of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, tweeted that “public lecturing of NATO allies [is] unseemly & counterproductive; hard not to see contrast between this & overly-solicitous treatment of Saudis.” Likewise, former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted, “No reason that Trump had to call out NATO allies in public for not meeting 2% of GDP targets. Some things best done behind closed doors.”
Daniel Twining of the German Marshall Fund tells me: “The United States remains the world’s only full-spectrum superpower. We are much more powerful than our rivals, including both China and Russia. But lately (including during the Obama administration — this did not start with Trump) we have acted as if we were not.” He explains: “We have lost our mojo in ways that cede strategic initiative to our adversaries. Signaling ambiguity over Article V of the NATO Charter risks compounding this self-inflicted phenomenon.” He emphasizes that “the current administration risks making the same mistake Obama did — empowering our adversaries at the expense of our friends. It is our European allies who need reassuring, not Moscow, just as our Asian allies fear a US-China G2 at their expense.”
Trump lacks impulse control to such an extent that whatever flashes through his brain (Pay up, NATO! I got the intel from Israel!) comes out of his mouth. Indeed, the New York Times has reported that aides are careful in briefing not to tell him something he shouldn’t say; that apparently only increases the chances he will blurt it out. This is the behavior of a 7-year-old, not the leader of the free world.
The entire purpose of Trump’s trip was to show leadership and solidarity with allies. In flubbing his best opportunity to do so with our closest allies in our most important alliance, he reminded them, the American people and our adversaries that he is not ready for prime time.