Donald Trump’s electoral campaign was notable for his abrasive statements and blunt assessments about a variety of issues. Among his more unforgettable claims was his suggestion that NATO was “obsolete.”
This comment was largely founded, it seems, on a lack of understanding about what NATO does or how it functions. Since 1949, NATO has been a bedrock of American foreign policy, first in Europe against the Soviet Union and its allies, and then in Afghanistan. Trump’s desire to build bridges with the Russians, and his plain ignorance about NATO’s contribution in the war against the Taliban, largely explains his startling claim.
But what interests me as a keen observer of NATO politics is what Trump’s encounter with the other NATO leaders reveals about their relationship. And what will he claim about that meeting on his return?
As in many other policy areas, some quick tutoring led Trump to completely reverse his position. Key to that education was undoubtedly Defense Secretary James Mattis, who reportedly told the German defense minister soon after Trump’s inauguration that NATO remained the “central pillar” of transatlantic security and commented in congressional testimony that Russia remained America’s number one security threat.
So Mattis himself, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all traveled to Europe in the first 100 days of the Trump administration to reassure NATO allies about the organization’s continued importance. This sentiment was reinforced by General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the current supreme allied commander Europe.
By April, Trump had issued a predictably blunt edict in which he reversed course: “I said it was obsolete. It is no longer obsolete.”
Still, for many of us, a subsequent visit to see those we’d publicly criticized would be awkward. But just like his meeting with Pope Francis, Trump again demonstrated an amazing capacity to shrug off his earlier statements without any outward sign of embarrassment – while simultaneously asserting an authoritative tone.
The discussions in Brussels may have been more symbolic than substantial. But Trump’s ability to assume a claim of leadership – and success – was helped by two developments.
Claiming a victory on NATO financing
First, Trump chastised other NATO members, reiterating his demand that they contribute more to NATO’s common defense.
Since the end of the Cold War, the size of the U.S. defense budget has varied, but expenditures always stayed above 2 percent of GDP. At the same time, however, most European budget expenditures haven’t. At NATO’s 2014 summit, NATO members agreed to target spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense.
Of the 27 other NATO members, only four currently meet the threshold. And of those, only Britain has a substantial military capability. Most pointedly, Germany has significantly underspent on defense. The fact that the 2 percent threshold doesn’t formally have to be met until 2024 is one of those minor facts that Trump conveniently ignores.
But this issue has been a longstanding squabble. In a rare example of bilateral consensus, Trump echoed the sentiment of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in demanding that they pay more. And, he added,
“This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States and many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and [from] not paying in those past years.”
Trump will surely characterize just bluntly voicing his concerns as a victory. And the vague promises of NATO members, particularly Germany, to increase their contributions to the common defense will reinforce that claim. The outcome, he will insist, is consistent with his campaign pledge – that he is getting a good deal for Americans.
Claiming a victory on terror
The second development in Brussels is an agreement that NATO would focus more on the fight against Islamic terrorism. This was formally reflected in the statement, calling terrorism “a challenge that the international community must tackle together.”
I imagine that Trump will undoubtedly again claim credit.
The Germans and French called this move “symbolic.” And, in some ways, they are right. The British and French are already deeply involved in the fight against terrorism, from Mali to the Middle East. And they have paid a heavy price for that involvement, as events in Paris, Nice, London and Manchester have made abundantly clear. But the assessment of the declaration as being purely symbolic may prove to be wrong in the long term – if a larger-scale Islamic State attack in the U.S. leads to Trump demanding that NATO provide a full-scale combat force to fight in Iraq or even Syria.
What wasn’t said
Three major issues were, however, ignored in Brussels.
The first was Russia. Trump’s ambiguous views about Russia contrast with the universal concern of Europeans. But NATO’s coming together around a common condemnation of Russian aggression in Ukraine allowed them all to smooth over their differences.
Second, disturbingly, Trump publicly declined to endorse the key security guarantee that is the foundation of NATO: a commitment that the U.S. would defend any NATO member attacked. In practice that means an attack by Russia.
And finally, little was made of the leaking of critical intelligence about the terrorist attack in Manchester by American sources. Information sharing is at the heart of the fight against terrorism. But British Prime Minister Theresa May’s very vocal complaints were not addressed in Trump’s statement, although he did separately respond by authorizing an investigation into who and how it happened. Still, you can’t coordinate a fight against terrorism if your own services are leaking like a sieve.
The aftermath of Trump’s visit
In stark contrast to recent meetings with Obama, European leaders therefore were left unhappy by Trump’s lack of commitment to the core ideals that have traditionally bound NATO together: an explicit distrust of Russia’s intent and an explicit commitment to the values of democracy, human rights, free trade and free speech.
The fact that he ignored them all highlights the fact that the President Trump we see abroad is very similar to the President Trump we see at home.