U.S. AMBASSADOR to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison says “the overall theme” of this week’s summit meeting in Brussels “is going to be NATO’s strength and unity,” which is what it ought to be. There is considerable good news to celebrate: The alliance has substantially beefed up defenses of its eastern flank, facing Russia; it is recommitting to vital missions in Afghanistan and Iraq; and every one of its members is increasing defense spending — the biggest buildup by U.S. allies in 25 years. The summit is due to adopt an ambitious new plan that would allow NATO to deploy 30 battalions, 30 squadrons of planes and 30 ships within 30 days — a resource that could considerably bolster the ability of the United States to respond to crises.
Unfortunately, Ms. Hutchison cannot predict the potential behavior of the commander in chief, President Trump, who has kept security officials across Europe sleepless in anticipation of a possible blowup like he initiated at last month’s Group of Seven meeting. Behind closed doors in Quebec, Mr. Trump berated the alliance as “as bad as NAFTA” and defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He also dispatched letters to the leaders of Germany, Canada and several other nations, scolding them for failing to spend still more on defense.
The fear is not only that Mr. Trump will spoil the “unity” of the summit with harangues before flying to Helsinki for a far friendlier meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is that, having shrugged off the strong support for NATO among his national security team, he is bent on wrecking a multilateral organization he regards as obsolete and a means for European nations to freeload at the expense of the United States.
NATO is manifestly not a bad business deal, but a multiplier of power for the United States, giving it a vital strategic advantage over friendless China and Russia. Mr. Trump makes a valid point about defense spending, particularly by Germany, which devotes just 1.2 percent of its GDP to its military, with the result that all its submarines, half its tanks and most of its warplanes are not ready for duty.
That, however, is not a reason to undermine the Atlantic alliance, particularly at a time when Germany and all other members are raising spending. The allies committed to devote 2 percent of GDP to defense by 2024, and the number of member states on track to achieve that has grown from five to 16 since last year, according to the State Department. Mr. Trump himself has boasted in the past that “money is beginning to pour in”; he could celebrate and claim credit for the trend at the summit.
What the president ought to avoid is making a show of discord with the European allies as a prelude to a relations-mending summit with Mr. Putin. That would be not just unseemly but dangerous: It could cause the Russian leader to conclude that he might get away with a new round of aggression in Europe. Mr. Trump seems not to understand that maligning America’s allies while embracing its adversaries is more than a political game; it could have catastrophic consequences.