This week, Trump heads to Brussels for a NATO summit and Helsinki for a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The question is whether he further damages the transatlantic relationship — a keystone of international relations since the end of World War II — by a little or a lot.
Since he took office, Trump has gone out of his way to bash the other members of NATO for not spending what they pledged — 2 percent of gross domestic product — on defense. He was at it again Monday, complaining on Twitter that “the United States is spending far more on NATO than any other Country. This is not fair, nor is it acceptable. While these countries have been increasing their contributions since I took office, they must do much more. Germany is at 1%, the U.S. is at 4%, and NATO benefits Europe far more than it does the U.S.”
Does it really? In Trump’s zero-sum mind-set, perhaps, but not in the real world. Yes, the other NATO countries should ante up as they promised. But only one member has ever drawn upon the NATO treaty’s biggest benefit by invoking Article 5, which states that an attack on one is tantamount to an attack on all: the United States, following 9/11.
Trump went on to claim, falsely, that the United States has a $151 billion trade deficit with Europe. That is approximately the deficit in goods, but when services are taken into account the actual deficit is $101 billion.
Trump’s obsession with military costs would make sense if it were part of an attempt to reduce the U.S. defense budget. But Trump has proposed a big boost in Pentagon spending to an astounding $686 billion for the 2019 fiscal year. His screeds against NATO seem to be motivated not by any potential savings but by an apparent dislike of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a mistaken understanding of what trade surpluses and deficits mean.
European allies may be less worried about how Trump might behave in Brussels than about what he could say or do in his meeting with Putin, whose approval he so appears to crave.
I’ll leave it to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to say whether there are sinister motives for Trump’s consistent willingness to look past Putin’s many transgressions — to name a few, Putin’s attempts to subvert Western democracies, including ours; his illegal annexation of Crimea; his human rights violations and muzzling of free speech, including the press; and his alleged assassinations of dissidents abroad, including an attempt to kill a former intelligence agent in Britain with a Soviet-era nerve agent.
Will Trump ignore all of this in pursuit of a new U.S.-Russia alliance? The fact that our allies even have to consider such a possibility is destabilizing.
Much of the rest of Trump’s foreign policy is equally bizarre. The tariffs he has imposed on goods made by allies such as Canada and the European Union may never escalate into a full-scale trade war, but those against China just might. Most economists agree that China’s trade policies are indeed unfair — and that Trump’s tariffs, crude and unwieldy instruments, are far more likely to end up hurting American workers than helping them.
Trump speculated in another Monday morning tweet that “China . . . may be exerting negative pressure” to disrupt the nuclear deal he made with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Nevertheless, Trump wrote, he is confident that Kim will “honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake.” Good Lord.
I wrote at the time, and still believe, that Trump was right to meet with Kim. But if the president really trusts the handshake promise of a murderous dictator to give up the nuclear weapons he sees as an airtight insurance policy, then the president is a fool.
Trump is giving power to Russia and China while taking it away from the United States and the Atlantic alliance. Some greatness.