The big takeaway of the so far bad-tempered NATO summit is that President Donald Trump has little time for the alliance and a thin appreciation of the track record and historic purpose of an organization that has kept the peace and preserved Western democracy since World War II.
He has given no sign he sees the alliance as other US presidents did, as a way of projecting American power, fortifying democracy, containing German expansionism and holding Russia at bay on a continent where twice last century, thousands of American boys went to die.
Instead, he appears to view it more like a contracting service, in which US allies should be paying far more in cash for the privilege of being America’s friend. If he sees any flow-back benefit to membership for the United States, the President rarely mentions it.
“I felt the President treated the NATO allies almost with contempt,” former US Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns told CNN’s Erin Burnett Wednesday after a day in which Trump berated US partners over defense spending and singled out Germany for particular scorn.
“It is important that we not normalize this. He is the first American president since Harry Truman … to not believe that NATO is central to American national security interests.”
With such attacks, Trump also often appears to be doing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s work for him, by opening divisions in the transatlantic alliance and berating NATO partners. It’s a move even more curious ahead of Trump’s Helsinki summit scheduled for Monday with his Russian counterpart.
The question with which NATO leaders must wrestle as the summit ends is whether Trump’s clear and public doubts about the alliance’s purpose matter.
Trump signed off on a robust set of summit achievements on Wednesday via a communiqué that condemned Russia’s “aggressive” actions and reaffirmed Western values of freedom and human rights. The alliance invited Macedonia to join and set up a readiness initiative that could quickly deploy troops, planes and ships in any crisis.
And every NATO member is increasing defense spending, something Trump has focused on pushing for.
None of that suggests that NATO is about to collapse despite Trump’s antipathy.
This is not the first time the alliance’s purpose has been questioned. After the Cold War, NATO was looking for a mission, and it found one in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, until Russia’s resurgent threat underlined the need for a transatlantic security alliance.
Yet Trump is the most important leader in NATO, so putting his behavior down as just the rhetoric of an arbitrary disrupter isn’t giving him his due. He is the person who would ultimately have to take the decision to react if there were any incursion by Russia into NATO territory.
Would he find it in America’s interests to stand up to a provocation by Moscow, especially if it is against a NATO member he considers has not been paying its way? Any ambivalence about a NATO country’s fate is critical, since the entire credibility of the grouping rests on the certainty that an attack on one is an attack on all.
How Trump would react if pushed in that capacity is unknown. But for now, he’s made his feelings about the current state of the organization and the world’s balance of power abundantly clear.
‘What good is NATO’
Just before showing up on a mild summer evening in Brussels for an awkward photo-op with world leaders, Trump issued a tweet that explained everything.
“What good is NATO,” the blast began, before lashing Germany and other allies that Trump accuses of leeching off American generosity and stinting on their own defense.
“Many countries are not paying what they should. And frankly, many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money for many years back, where they’re delinquent, as far as I’m concerned,” Trump had said in front of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg earlier Wednesday.
One shocked senior European diplomat told CNN’s Michelle Kosinski: “It’s like the world gone crazy this morning. Trump’s performance was beyond belief.”
In apparently rejecting traditional US reverence for the transatlantic alliance, Trump is departing from the views of many senior members of his own administration and military establishment, 97 US senators who voted on Tuesday to support NATO in a pre-emptive swipe against him, and the other 28 members of the alliance.
Even House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is usually loath to criticize Trump, told reporters: “NATO is indispensable. It’s as important today as it ever has been.”
The White House, trying to put a strategic spin on what seems to be Trump’s instinctive dislike of NATO, argues that he is actually trying to bolster the alliance with his demands for more defense spending.
“President Trump wants to see our allies share more of the burden and at a very minimum meet their already stated obligations,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said. Another senior official said the President’s attacks on Germany represented “tough medicine” for a crucial US ally that’s well below the guideline of 2% of gross domestic product for member state spending on defense by 2024.
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