President Donald Trump is flying out to Belgium on Tuesday for two days of NATO meetings, and if member states — and U.S. allies — were under the impression that he might be rethinking the antagonistic strategy he unleashed during June’s G7 summit in Italy, they can forget it.
While NATO members (North Atlantic Treaty Organization — a military alliance of 29 countries) are hoping to build bridges, that’s about as likely as Trump playing a few holes of gold in Tehran next Labor Day.
Exhibit A: President Trump started his Monday morning with some bright-and-early tweets lashing out at our security partners:
The United States is spending far more on NATO than any other Country. This is not fair, nor is it acceptable. While these countries have been increasing their contributions since I took office, they must do much more. Germany is at 1%, the U.S. is at 4%, and NATO benefits…….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2018
…Europe far more than it does the U.S. By some accounts, the U.S. is paying for 90% of NATO, with many countries nowhere close to their 2% commitment. On top of this the European Union has a Trade Surplus of $151 Million with the U.S., with big Trade Barriers on U.S. goods. NO!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2018
Exhibit B: He has, in no way, departed from his earlier messages to NATO countries, repeating what he’s said in the past and in letters he reportedly sent to several European governments, as well as Canada, pushing them to increase their spending in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
So everyone knows what to expect come Wednesday and Thursday, when Trump and his NATO Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison (who thinks the president is hitting it out of the park, of course) will join our global security allies.
James Goldgeier, professor at the School of International Service at American University, said that President Trump is correct to complain that NATO partners should be spending more on their own security– this is a view held by former presidents. But Trump’s “obsession with it, the constant harping on it, and the exclusive focus on it — that’s pretty new,” said Goldgeier.
“He has this general view that America’s allies have been taking advantage of it, and that all of these arrangements are what he likes to call ‘bad deals.’ Apparently at the G7 summit, he told our partners that NATO was as bad as NAFTA,” said Goldgeier, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement Trump wants to terminate.
Much ado about 2 percent
Here’s the thing, though: The 2 percent to which President Trump is referring in his tweets Monday is not a reflection of NATO spending, nor it is some kind of compulsory due. It reflects the the percentage of each country’s national defense budgets and nothing else. Bumping defense spending up to to 2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) is a goal that NATO members have until 2024 to meet. For context, the United States spends a massive amount on defense — 3.61 percent of our 2016 GDP was dedicated to it.
Although defense spending by other NATO countries has risen since Trump became president, this “harping,” to use the professor’s words, probably won’t work out as the president would like it to. It might even backfire.
“The challenge for any leaders — especially the way he’s criticized people like Chancellor [Angela] Merkel of Germany or Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau of Canada — is that they can’t look like they’re doing what they’re doing because he’s bullying them,” said Goldgeier.
They might want to increase spending for their own reasons, but they can’t do it in a way that it looks like they’re responding to Trump.
In other words, Merkel can’t afford to have Trump toss any more Starburst candies at her without losing credibility with her domestic base.
“Even if they hit 2 percent, I don’t think it would matter….he just isn’t interested in the whole alliance relationship,” said Goldgeier.
This disdain for U.S. allies is essentially the beating heart of much of Trump’s foreign policy, it seems.
“Prior presidents saw America’s allies as enhancing U.S. power and really enabling the United States in being the global leader that it has been for so long, especially compared to China and Russia, which have very few allies,” said Goldgeier.
“Instead of viewing it that way, he views it as ‘The U.S. has been played’…and it’s always this ‘They’re laughing at us,'” he added.
But just as Trump is accusing allies of trying to play him for the fool, many believe that’s exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are doing. Trump will meet with Putin next week, and met with Kim at the incredibly weird summit in Singapore in June.
“He’s mainly worried about our allies taking advantage of us. But he seems to have a thing for authoritarian rulers,” said Goldgeier, who expects Trump to come out of his meeting with Putin touting a great relationship (as he did with Kim — although the North Korean leader’s weekend meeting with Secretary of Sate Mike Pompeo yielded disastrous optics).
How can Trump harm NATO?
As much as the president hates NATO, he can’t just pull out of it.
And pulling out won’t have much support in his administration or among lawmakers.
“Secretary of Defense [James] Mattis is supportive of NATO, the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, is very supportive. Other parts of the government, the public, have always been supportive of NATO. It has bipartisan support on the hill,” said Goldgeier.
“It really is just Trump. The hard part for the Europeans to figure out is, ‘okay, at what point will his hatred of allies and NATO mean a change in America’s policy?'” he added.
What Trump could do, though, is cut back on military exercises, reduce participation in them or redeploy troops elsewhere, signalling a weakening of U.S. commitment to NATO.
This would put U.S. allies in a tough spot, prompting them to either form stronger relationships with one another or perhaps with countries outside the alliance
“Other countries are going to have to look out for themselves…I think we’ll see more and more countries developing relationships that they think will benefit them in an era when they can’t count on the United States the way they used to,” said Goldgeier.