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Trump may really not know how NATO works

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There are many incredible snippets to be plucked from President Trump’s interview in the new issue of Time magazine, which featured a cover asking “Is Truth Dead?” (Time was referring to the president’s penchant for spouting falsehoods, while playing with the style of its iconic 1966 cover that asked “Is God Dead?”)

The entire conversation between Trump and Michael Scherer, Time’s Washington bureau chief, is worth reading for its jarring glimpse into Trump’s psychology. A writer at the feminist blog Jezebel redacted everything that’s not verifiably true from the president’s answers and found herself scratching out almost all of his remarks. The interview ended after Trump shrugged off questions about his credibility with a bewildering declaration: “I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president, and you’re not.”

My colleagues over at The Washington Post’s Fact Checker also ran the rule over the “cascade of false claims” Trump made in the interview, so we'll focus on one: More than two months into his tenure in office, Trump still doesn’t seem to understand how NATO works.

Trump’s ambivalence about the West’s preeminent military alliance is well known. Before entering the White House, he declared NATO “obsolete” and cast doubt on U.S. military commitments to its traditional partners in Europe.

In the interview with Scherer, Trump first insisted the alliance “doesn't cover terrorism,” then took credit for having “fixed that.” This is false on both counts. Ever since the attacks on 9/11, counterterrorism operations have been NATO’s main preoccupation. The deployment of coalition forces to Afghanistan was the largest military mission in NATO’s history. The alliance had a counterterrorism desk decades before Trump started grumbling.

Then Trump patted himself on the back for convincing NATO’s European members to “pay the bills.”

“Nobody knew that they weren’t paying,” he said. “I did. I figured it.” Again, this is false. U.S. officials, including former president Barack Obama, have long complained that NATO allies act as “free riders” while the United States shoulders the main burden of guaranteeing regional security. But Trump is undeterred.

After an awkward meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week, Trump issued two tweets that seemed to sum up his stance:

The comments prompted a rebuke from Germany’s defense minister. “There is no debt account in NATO,” Ursula von der Leyen said in a terse statement Sunday. She pointed out that Germany’s spending on U.N. peacekeeping and anti-Islamic State operations is not included in its regular military budget.

When pressed by Scherer on the matter, Trump refused to budge. Here’s his full answer on NATO:

“What I said about NATO was true, people aren’t paying their bills. And everyone said it was a horrible thing to say. And then they found out. And when Germany was over here I said, we are going to have a great relationship with Germany but you have to pay your NATO bills, and they don’t even dispute it, ok. So what have I said that is wrong? Everyone, I got attacked on NATO and now they are all saying I was right.”

Let’s look beyond Trump’s almost amusing identification of Merkel simply as “Germany.” Nothing said in the above graph is particularly accurate.

At a 2014 summit, NATO members pledged (nonbindingly) to boost their own defense spending to at least 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024. So far, only four members other than the United States have managed this. NATO’s own officials admit this is a problem for the alliance, but spending is indeed gradually going up.

Again, this has little to do with any intervention from Trump. More importantly, no one owes the United States money, nor is any member state accruing debt if it doesn't make the 2 percent goal each year.

Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013, took to social media this week explain this to Trump. “Sorry, Mr. President, that’s not how NATO works,” he began.

The central tension here, as Daalder notes, is Trump’s inability to see foreign policy as anything but a set of transactional relationships. The White House, as we’ve discussed before, is skeptical of multilateral diplomacy and keen to deal with the world on bilateral terms with individual nations. But NATO forces Trump to reckon with the complexities of regional politics and the benefits of America’s long-standing role in helping guarantee the security of others.

That’s a reality he will have to stomach — if not via the lectures of foreign leaders, then perhaps through his own lieutenants, who have already been compelled to reiterate their support for the alliance. The truth, in this instance, isn’t dead yet.

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