President Trump’s meetings with anti-American despots such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin are inevitably lovefests. His meetings with democratic allies are inevitably tense and acrimonious. This week’s NATO summit in London held true to disastrous form.
The first lowlight was Trump’s tense meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday. The two leaders fought over the handling of Islamic State detainees (“Would you like some nice ISIS fighters? I could give them to you,” Trump demanded sarcastically. Macron snapped: “Let’s be serious”). They also fought over Turkey (“How is it possible to be a member of the alliance … and to buy the S-400s from the Russians?” Macron asked) and Russia (“I think we get along with Russia,” Trump said, while Macron cautioned against “naivete” in “a strategic dialogue with Russia”). They even fought over NATO’s own future.
In an interview with the Economist last month, Macron made headlines by saying that NATO is experiencing “brain death” because of the unilateralism of Turkey and the United States. “We find ourselves for the first time with an American president who doesn’t share our idea of the European project, and American policy is diverging from this project,” Macron said. “You have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies. None.”
You would think that an American president who has called NATO “obsolete” and opined that “European nations were set up in order to take advantage of the United States” would have no problem with Macron’s withering assessment. But no. Trump called Macron’s comments “very, very nasty” and “very disrespectful,” although not to Macron’s face. Trump — a lion on Twitter but a pussycat in person — saved his harshest words about the French president for his meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Macron took advantage of Trump’s reticence for face-to-face confrontations to smack Trump around in their joint press availability. To make sure that nothing was lost in translation, he spoke in English — a language that he employs more eloquently than the native New Yorker sitting next to him. Macron thereby boosted his own bid to become the leading spokesman for Europe now that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is on her way out of office and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is on his way out of the European Union.
Some commentators cheered Macron for using “reverse psychology” to trick Trump into supporting NATO. But his triumph was short-lived. On the very day that Trump was criticizing Macron’s assessment of NATO’s “brain death,” he was confirming its essential validity by refusing to say whether the United States would come to the defense of allies that are “delinquent” in their defense spending. Trump once again revealed his lack of comprehension of how NATO works; he seems to think that countries that don’t spend more on defense are equivalent to Mar-a-Lago members who don’t pay their annual dues. Even more alarmingly, Trump showed his inexorable hostility to Article V, the collective defense provision at the heart of the alliance.
“Nobody needs NATO more than France,” Trump said, even though France survived just fine for more than 40 years — from 1966 to 2009 — without being part of NATO’s military structure. “And, frankly, the one that benefits, really, the least is the United States,” Trump added, even though the only time that Article V was invoked was in response to 9/11.
After a day of such risible statements, it was little wonder that Macron, Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were laughing at Trump and making fun of his tirades. The only surprise is that their mockery was caught on videotape.
For years Trump has been claiming that “the entire world was laughing and taking advantage of us.” That wasn’t true before. It’s true now. The world leaders assembled at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2018 laughed in disbelief when Trump boasted that his “administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” Now this.
The open disdain and derision of his fellow world leaders was too much for Trump’s fragile ego. Trump’s followers make fun of liberals for supposedly being “snowflakes” who melt down when confronted and for being easily “triggered,” but no one is a bigger “snowflake” or more easily “triggered” than Trump himself. The president lashed out at Trudeau, calling him “two-faced,” and abruptly called off his planned post-summit news conference. No doubt the other leaders breathed a sigh of relief to be spared more of Trump’s inanities — although, if he stays true to form, he will simply insult them on Twitter.
Quite a way to mark the 70th anniversary of the most successful military alliance in history. Suffice it to say that if Trump had been president in 1949, NATO would never have been formed. If he stays in office another five years, it may not survive. NATO may not be brain-dead, but it is certainly on life support — and Trump, more than anyone else, is responsible for its infirmity.