The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s NATO isolationism is at least 30 years old

President Trump shares a laugh with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels on July 11. (Francois Mori/AP)

Those flipping through the New York Times on Sept. 2, 1987, would have come across an unusual full-page advertisement carrying a now-familiar signature. And a now-familiar message.

“For decades, Japan and other nations have been taking advantage of the United States,” it began. After arguing that Japan and the Middle East had abused U.S. support, the letter got to its point: “Make Japan, Saudi Arabia, and others pay for the protection we extend as allies. Let’s help our farmers, our sick, our homeless by taking from some of the greatest profit machines ever created — machines created and nurtured by us.”

“ ‘Tax’ these wealthy nations, not America,” it read. It was signed by Donald J. Trump.

Over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, that argument resurfaced repeatedly in Trump’s rhetoric — though the most significant offender had morphed from Japan to China. It was a feature of his skepticism about American participation in NATO as well — this idea that other NATO members were taking advantage of American generosity.

Despite repeated public assertions that the idea hadn’t come up, the New York Times reported on Monday that Trump had spoken with staff about withdrawing from the coalition, which turns 70 this year. Trump reportedly had raised the idea at least in the abstract several times, with staff (including then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis) working behind the scenes to assure American allies that the United States was committed to the relationship.

Trump’s complaint mirrors his complaint from 1987: The United States pays a disproportionate amount of the cost of NATO, and other nations aren’t paying their share.

It’s not an entirely accurate complaint, as we noted at the time of Trump’s NATO visit last year. Trump asserted that the United States covers 90 percent of the cost of the partnership; an expert with whom I spoke at the time put the figure closer to 20 percent. It’s also not the case that countries pay into NATO or that Trump spurred them to pay more. There’s a formula designed to encourage defense spending that would then mean more deployable resources, and, in many countries, that spending was already on the upswing when Trump took office.

But Trump’s argument was always simpler than one that relied on determinations of the proper. It was, in essence: We pay too much elsewhere instead of spending that money at home.

The evening that the ad first ran in the Times, Trump appeared on Larry King’s CNN program. A caller raised the subject of NATO specifically.

“I’ve always felt that NATO and West Germany, I mean, we have all those troops over there — I feel that they should pay their way,” the caller said.

“I agree with you on NATO,” Trump replied. “I agree with you on other countries. I don’t want to single out Japan. I don’t want to single out Saudi Arabia. But these are countries that people understand the kind of wealth we’re talking about. And I will single them out, but there are many other countries, and — taking tremendous advantage of this, including NATO. If you look at the payments that we’re making to NATO, they’re totally disproportionate with everybody else’s. And it’s ridiculous.”

The country, he said, was “busted.”

“If we had business ability in this country, we’d be making lots of profit — so-called surplus — profit,” he continued. “And that profit, that money, could be going to defend our — and I literally mean defend — our homeless, and our poor, and our sick, and our farmers. And that’s where we ought to be spending the money. Not giving it to countries that don’t give a damn for us to start off with.”

He was probably referring to non-NATO countries with that last comment. At the time, at the tail end of the Cold War, about a third of U.S. federal spending was dedicated to defense. Now, it’s around 20 percent.

The existence of Trump’s letter and his interview with King serve as a reminder that, for better or worse, he came to Washington from well outside the D.C. establishment. His views on foreign aid and American geopolitics were informed by an investor’s sensibility: What were we getting for the money we were spending? It’s a reflection of the fact that the average American doesn’t see many obviously tangible benefits of foreign investment and international alliances. For a guy who worried about the financial bottom line, the go-to metric was ROI.

As president, that sensibility hasn’t been dented.

In that same interview Trump insisted that there was no ulterior motive to the ad. No, he wasn’t interested in running for president.

The 1987 ad: