President Trump likes his North Korea template so much that he is applying it to NATO. Here’s how it works: Ramp up the alarming rhetoric. Escalate the crisis. Then hold a meeting. Act buddy-buddy. Claim that the problem is fixed because you’re a master deal-maker — even though nothing has actually changed.
Just as Trump preceded the Singapore summit with gibes against “Little Rocket Man,” so, too, before his arrival in Brussels, he insulted NATO. Last week, for example, he complained: “They want to protect against Russia and yet they pay billions of dollars to Russia, and we’re the schmucks paying for the whole thing.”
At a breakfast with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, he even said, while his aides squirmed nearby, that Germany is “captive” to Russia, because it “will be getting 60 to 70 percent of their energy from Russia and a new pipeline.” (In fact, Russian natural gas will meet just a sliver of Germany’s energy needs; currently, that figure is 9 percent.) One might say, by the same token, that the United States is a captive of Russia because its president was elected with Russian help. Trump’s insult drew a biting retort from Chancellor Angela Merkel, who pointed out that she actually grew up in a “a part of Germany that was controlled by the Soviet Union,” and that today Germans “make our own decisions.”
Trump also repeated an old canard, claiming that NATO countries are “delinquent for many years in payments that have not been made. Will they reimburse the U.S.?” In reality, as countless fact-checkers have pointed out in vain, NATO nations don’t owe the United States a penny. If they raise spending on defense, the money will go into their own armed forces — not the U.S. Treasury.
Trump’s oft-repeated charge that the Europeans are free-loaders is wildly exaggerated. Yes, they need to upgrade their defense capabilities, but let’s keep some perspective: The United States has 62,635 troops in Europe; the European members of NATO have 1.8 million. We couldn’t have contained Russia for 73 years without massive European assistance. While the United States spends far more on defense than the other members of NATO — $623 billion vs. $312 billion — very little of our spending goes to Europe; most of the U.S. defense budget is intended to address threats such as China, Iran, al-Qaeda and North Korea.
But Trump is impervious to any information that contradicts his prejudices. At a closed-door meeting on Thursday, he made a veiled threat to leave the alliance. He never did say why he wants NATO to spend more, since he does not view Russia as a pressing threat. Rather than calling Russia an enemy, he describes it as a “competitor” — the same way he views Germany.
A few minutes later, Mr. Hyde transformed into Dr. Jekyll. At a news conference, Trump claimed that NATO was “much stronger than it was two days ago” and that the United States was now being treated fairly at last, because NATO had just agreed to massive increases in defense spending. “The additional money that they’re willing to put up has been really amazing,” he gushed.
Just one thing, though: French President Emmanuel Macron immediately denied that NATO had made any new commitments. In 2014, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO members agreed to boost defense spending to at least 2 percent of GDP by 2024. (Today the Canadian and European members are at 1.47 percent.) Trump demanded that they accelerate that timeline — and even aim for 4 percent of GDP, a goal that the United States (at 3.5 percent) does not itself meet. “A communiqué was issued yesterday,” Macron said. “This communiqué is clear. It reaffirms the 2 percent by 2024 commitments. That’s all.”
Trump’s supporters will argue that he simply reiterated the demands of previous presidents — spend more on defense, lessen energy reliance on Russia. He didn’t actually pull out of NATO or even, as he did at the Group of Seven summit in Canada last month, out of the joint communiqué. His pressure, Trumpsplainers will reassure, is actually strengthening NATO. Didn’t he say, “I believe in NATO”?
I don’t think so. Ultimately, NATO is all about credibility and trust. What happens if Vladimir Putin — whom Trump treats with far greater respect than he does the United States’ allies — commits an act of aggression against the Baltic republics? Can anyone be confident that Trump will invoke NATO’s Article 5 mutual-defense provision and go to their aid?
The president’s bizarre performance in Brussels, blowing hot and cold, only adds to growing doubts in Europe about whether they can still count on Uncle Sam. Already, in one poll, only 14 percent of Germans view the United States as a reliable partner, compared with 36 percent for Russia and 43 percent for China. Trump’s antics will only intensify that mistrust and continue to unravel the trust that generations of transatlantic leaders have labored to build.
Putin must be watching this dismaying spectacle with a Cheshire cat grin on his face. He has scored two triumphs this week: the World Cup and the NATO summit.