Trump Tries Unraveling NATO
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Trump Tries Unraveling NATO

Why in the Hell Is He Trashing the Alliance That’s Kept Europe at Peace and Protected America for Eight Decades?

It was as if Trump was throwing one of his political rallies in Europe, insulting his NATO hosts, but tossing some more political red meat to his base voters back home. It came complete with overstatement, big personality, a demand for praise and a lot of misstatement.

We know that Trump’s natural political feelings are awfully distasteful and undiplomatic toward leaders who are supposed to be the friendliest. His poorly thought-out blurting out of anti-German, anti-NATO, anti-Europe remarks at the outset of a NATO diplomatic meeting yesterday was at once embarrassing to all but Trump, ineffective and just plain discourteous.

It was left to Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, to try to paper over the deepening transatlantic rift with tweets and visits with counterparts. In Washington, meanwhile, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve a non-binding resolution reminding all that NATO countries remain our longest-lasting and important allies.

Wow, even Senate Republicans were willing to say no to Trump’s posture.

In fact, the other leaders were going out of their way not to provoke Trump, but clearly were upset that Trump has emerged as a strong threat to the continuing alliance. What must Russian leader Vladimir Putin think – it has been his dream for two decades or more to drive a wedge between NATO countries and the U.S.

Trump told the NATO head that Germany was in Russia’s pocket because Germany has a natural gas deal with Russia “worth billions.”

As I have argued, I just cannot quite understand why Trump is picking a fight with several allies for not spending enough on defense – all in the name of supporting NATO, the treaty organization that all have rallied around.

At issue is Trump’s complaint that other nations are not spending 2% of GDP, or gross domestic product, on their own defense, apparently concluding that the U.S. is left paying for their failures to pony up. In advance of a NATO meeting, Trump sent nasty notes to his fellow NATO allies to tell them they are shirkers and threatening to reconsider keeping U.S. troops in Europe. He picked up on the theme as he arrived in their midst.

In fact, that’s not how NATO gets its money. NATO has a budget to cover common civilian and military costs, as The New York Times explained last year, and some NATO-owned assets are also commonly funded when they are used in operations. The U.S. pays 22% of those costs, according to a formula based on national income. None of the NATO allies owe on these contributions. Instead, Trump is referring imprecisely to a goal NATO has set for each member to spend at least 2% of its GDP on its own defense each year. Only five of the 28 members meet that goal–the U.S., Greece, Britain, Estonia and Poland.

In fact, the 2% guideline—not a legally binding requirement—came about in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded parts of Ukraine, and even then identified it as a goal for 2024.

Why is 2% even the right level of defense spending for a nation? Americans spend more than 54% of the federal budget on defense or about 3.5% of GDP.

In fact, the day ended with Trump calling for the allies each to double proposed defense spending to 4%.

Trump’s new round of insults represents an impolite poke at the European allies. “The letters, sent in June, are the latest sign of acrimony between Trump and American allies… Trump has repeatedly questioned its value and has claimed that its members are taking advantage of the United States,” said The Times.

What makes all this curious, of course, is that it comes amid a budding tariff war that seems to be punishing allies (and U.S. consumers) and a summit with Putin.

What makes it weird is why now? You would think that in pursuit of America First, the president would want to show off a Big Stick wherever he can – which he is doing in general – but in response to some problem. What problem exactly are we trying to fix? If Trump truly believes that U.S. troops are deployed incorrectly, why is he insisting on an attack on allies over their defense spending rather than getting the Pentagon to come up with a better deployment plan?

After all, there are real international problems going on for which some actual cooperation would be helpful. Refugees continue to stream from war zones in Syria, people are starving in Yemen, there are nuclear weapons issues in North Korea and Iran and, yes, the Russians are acting out in election interference as well as in expansionist policies.

Instead, the president is focused on an incorrect assumption that seems to attract like some kind of shiny object. That he does so without providing an overview of U.S. military and diplomatic strategic goals, an assessment of our needs and costs and a thoughtful review, if warranted, of our commitments to allies, is more than discomforting.

Indeed, why do we need to be spending as much as we do on American military efforts if we are working at the same time to withdraw? It no longer is such a longshot thought, for example, that Trump will agree to draw down U.S. troop presence in Korea or even from Europe.

I don’t understand our commitment in Afghanistan, in Korea, in the Middle East or, increasingly, in secret deployments across Africa – and from what I read, apparently, neither does Congress. What we all can see is more respect and reliance on strongmen around the world, who each want to control regional affairs in ways that will reduce American influence, values and, eventually, prosperity.

Isolation is not a global policy. It is a retreat.

If that is the Trump goal, let’s deal with that and have the appropriate debates in Congress and in public. Let’s knock off fake concerns about whether Germany ponies up more money for its own defense to meet an arbitrary goal.

July 12, 2018