“[T]he United States is more than doing its part. … Now what we are saying is that rich Western Europe must do its part, and I hope it will.”
“[W]e cannot continue to pay for the military protection of Europe while the NATO states are not paying their fair share and living off the ‘fat of the land.’ We have been very generous to Europe and it is now time for us to look out for ourselves, knowing full well that the Europeans will not do anything for us simply because we have in the past helped them. … We should consider very hard the narrower interests of the United States.”
Think that was Donald Trump? Wrong. It was President John F. Kennedy — the first quote from a television interview in December 1962, followed by Kennedy’s comments at a National Security Council meeting a month later.
Kennedy’s statements more than 50 years ago remind us that burden sharing has been a perennial issue for NATO. The United States has long chided Europe for not doing its part.
So why is it such a big deal that Trump has complained vociferously about NATO countries not spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on their own defense, including sending allied leaders letters complaining once again, in advance of their coming meeting in Brussels?
After all, NATO allies agreed at their summit in Wales four years ago to aim to hit the 2 percent target within a decade — and German Chancellor Angela Merkel already has indicated that German defense spending would get to only 1.5 percent by 2024.
Any U.S. president should (and would) express concerns about this spending lag, so why are experts so upset about Trump’s attitudes toward NATO? As the president heads off to another NATO summit, there are at least three reasons this time feels so different, and why those who value the transatlantic partnership are justifiably worried.
1) Trump sees NATO as just another ‘bad deal.’
Past presidents and other top officials often complained about the lack of burden sharing. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired off a blistering attack on allied spending in his farewell remarks in 2011, for instance. But previous leaders believed America’s alliances enhance U.S. power.
Trump seems not to share this belief. Despite the continuation of U.S. military activities designed to reassure NATO members like Estonia and Poland that the alliance will protect them from Russian aggression, Trump has been far less publicly supportive of NATO than his predecessors, or his own officials, such as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
On his first visit to Europe as president, Trump cast doubt on the U.S. commitment under NATO’s Article 5 to come to the defense of any member that is attacked. For Trump, NATO is just another bad deal America has struck to take care of the needs of others rather than its own. NATO is “as bad as NAFTA,” he reportedly told his G-7 colleagues in Canada last month.
It’s not clear Trump quite understands how NATO works. Countries spend on their own defense and then act together when need be, rather than, as Trump seems to believe, paying the United States directly for security, almost like some kind of protection racket.
Allies do pay directly into a rather small common budget, into which the United States contributes 22 percent and Germany nearly 15 percent. Trump reportedly handed Merkel a piece of paper at their first meeting in 2017, claiming Germany owed the United States $300 billion — the amount Germans were short of the 2 percent spending goal, plus interest since 2002. He could well lambaste her again publicly at the summit.
2) The U.S. may threaten to walk.
In January 2016, Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Wright wrote that Trump’s antipathy toward allies is one of his three most consistent messages over the past 30 years, along with support for economic protectionism and an admiration of strongmen like Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump has made clear his disdain for American allies, and has even launched a trade war with Canada and the E.U. this year. But what if he goes beyond repeating his familiar complaints? Trump’s cancellation of military exercises with South Korea (adopting the North Korean depiction of these as aggressive “war games”) last month suggests he might just as easily announce cutbacks in U.S. participation in NATO military exercises.
The Pentagon reportedly is assessing the costs of reducing or redeploying U.S. troops stationed in Germany — who are there not simply to defend Europe but to position the United States for military contingencies in Africa and the Middle East. The worst-case scenario — given Trump’s comments at a recent rally that the Europeans “kill us on trade … they kill us with NATO” — would be suggesting America no longer needed NATO at all.
3) Trump continues to embrace Putin.
One reason so many experts are worried about Trump’s coming travel is that he seems to have adopted Putin’s worldview. The Russian president has long wanted to divide the United States and Europe, just as the Soviet Union did throughout the Cold War. Now he has a counterpart in the White House whose “America First” concept also undermines Western unity.
Trump granted concessions to Putin — even before the summit. Trump recently retweeted earlier statements that Putin has denied Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And Trump has indicated his openness to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
NATO allies are bracing for Trump to speak harshly toward them and glowingly toward Putin — and this would undermine any sense of solidarity in the face of Russia’s continued aggression against the United States and Europe.
Trump created a great deal of leverage early on. Allies were eager to placate Trump when he came into office, given his previous comments; NATO’s secretary general soon announced that members were increasing their military spending.
But instead of declaring victory, he is likely to disrupt, as he did at the G-7 summit and cast doubt on America’s belief in the value of NATO. That’s why this time is different.
James Goldgeier (@JimGoldgeier) is professor of international relations at American University and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.