THERE IS nothing new about the complaints President Trump voiced Wednesday about spending by NATO members and Germany’s importing of Russian gas — remarks that got a summit meeting intended to be a show of transatlantic unity off to a divisive start. Previous U.S. presidents have been raising the same issues in Brussels and Berlin for decades, sometimes in blunt words; President Barack Obama also complained about European “free riders.”
Yet Mr. Trump’s criticism, which he has been repeating on Twitter for days, is uniquely poisonous. The president has consistently described NATO spending inaccurately, reflecting blatant ignorance about the way the alliance works. He harped on the issue at a time when the pact’s 29 member states, including Germany, have been significantly increasing defense investments, something that ought to be celebrated. Most seriously, he has repeated his critiques without offering clear support for NATO and its strategic mission — leading many European officials to suspect he is trying to destroy an alliance he doesn’t believe in.
If Mr. Trump’s real concern were inadequate European spending, he should have started by better informing himself. He consistently describes defense budgets of NATO members as if they were dues owed to the United States: “Many countries . . . are also delinquent for many years in payments,” he tweeted on the way to Brussels. “Will they reimburse the U.S.?” But European states do not pay the United States for their defense, as Mr. Trump seems to imagine. Rather, they have committed to raise their own defense budgets to 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024. Many are using some of those funds for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan that are of critical import to the United States.
Not all are on track to meet the 2 percent pledge, and Germany is particularly remiss, though it has beefed up spending by billions of dollars. But Mr. Trump’s reported demand that the allies commit to doubling their spending targets, to 4 percent of GDP, made little sense. That is more than current U.S. spending as a proportion of GDP — and Pentagon budgets maintain bases and deploy fleets around the world, something that shouldn’t be expected from Estonia or Spain.
Seemingly intent on hazing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr. Trump brought up a gas pipeline under construction between Russia and Germany, which could make Western Europe more dependent on Russian energy supplies and which previous administrations have objected to. But Mr. Trump’s claim that Germany is “a captive of Russia” is manifestly false. Ms. Merkel has been considerably tougher on Russian President Vladimir Putin than Mr. Trump has; unlike the U.S. president, she has never suggested acceptance of Russia’s forcible annexation of Crimea.
Ms. Merkel and other European leaders probably are aware that Mr. Trump’s deep skepticism toward NATO is shared by virtually no one in his own administration or Republicans in Congress; the Senate passed a resolution in support of the alliance by 97 to 2 on Tuesday. The president is also at odds with the American public. According to a 2017 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 69 percent — including 54 percent of core Trump supporters — say NATO is “essential” to U.S. security.
Perhaps that’s why, despite his outbursts, Mr. Trump did not stand in the way of NATO’s adoption at the summit of new plans to defend against Russia and terrorism. But his hostile rhetoric does its own damage — and it will be compounded if it is followed by an unseemly show of comity with Mr. Putin at their meeting next week.