Editorial: Trump Rattles NATO

President Donald Trump visited Brussels on July 10 as part of a week-long, three-nation European trip. At a meeting of NATO allies, he offended our allies and outraged both the American and European news media by excoriating the alliance members that spend below the 2 percent of GDP they agreed to spend on defense in 2006.

Three points seem especially relevant. First, Trump’s rhetoric is foolish and unhelpful. His obsession with NATO spending commitments grows from his bizarre sense that the world’s lone superpower is always and everywhere getting screwed. This victim mentality reflects Trump’s view of himself. The president spends much of his time complaining about the various forces he imagines are out to get him. And he talks about the country in the same way.

One day it’s China, the next it’s Mexico. If it’s not the European Union, it’s our Asian trading partners. It’s the Democrats, the media, the FBI, his attorney general, the “deep state.” And now, once again, it’s NATO. Always the victim—the man and his country.

Second, despite the deep paranoia, Trump’s criticisms are not entirely mistaken. Most NATO states maintain insufficient military forces. Russian expansionism is one of the constants of modern European history, and the NATO states spending just 1 percent of GDP on defense—Belgium spends less than a percent; Germany, Denmark, and the Czech Republic a little more than 1—are foolish. Yet the president’s suggestion that they raise their defense commitment to 4 percent of GDP is unrealistic. The United States itself only spends 3.5 percent of GDP on defense. Perhaps this is Trumpian diplomacy: gross overstatement in search of a favorable compromise.

Europeans complain that defense-spending-as-a-percentage-of-GDP is a crude metric for demonstrating commitment to NATO, and that’s true. Greece, for example, claims to spend 2.27 percent of its economy on defense, but this is laughable—the Greeks have found ways to count pension benefits as “military” spending. On the other hand, Italy only spends 1.15 percent of its economy on defense and it manages to superintend virtually the whole Mediterranean. Europeans are well aware that they shortchange their militaries. In February, Defense Secretary James Mattis, echoing the president’s earlier complaints, told NATO to raise military spending or the United States would be forced to “moderate its commitment to the alliance.” Many of our European allies have done so and Trump can take credit for it.

Third, and most important, Trump’s rhetoric on NATO reveals yet again his deep misunderstanding of America’s role in maintaining a rules-based global order. “The U.S. is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on Trade. Must pay 2% of GDP IMMEDIATELY, not by 2025,” Trump tweeted on July 11.

The immediate point at issue was Germany’s deal with the Russian state gas company, Gazprom, to build a pipeline via the Baltic Sea. The Nord Stream II project would afford Russia enormous power over eastern Europe’s energy supply, and there is visceral opposition from Poland and Hungary, both of which have painful memories of Russian and German hegemony. “I think it’s very sad,” Trump said in Brussels, “when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia where we’re supposed to be guarding against Russia.” “Germany, as far as I’m concerned, is captive to Russia because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia,” he told NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg. “We have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that’s being paid to the country we’re supposed to be protecting you against.”

Europe’s diplomatic elite constantly downplay Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere, and it warns against even rhetorical gestures at Russia’s expense. German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently said that Russia’s attempt to murder former spy Sergei Skripal on British soil was a big deal, yes, but “we should be at least as worried about the galloping alienation between Russia and the West, the consequences of which stretch far beyond this case”—meaning, in other words, that it was no big deal at all.

But Trump, to be generous, is himself an imperfect messenger here. In recent weeks, he has amplified Russian claims that it did not meddle in the 2016 elections, despite abundant public evidence to the contrary. Just last week, Trump mocked those who warned him that Putin is a former KGB official and a bad global actor, with the president dismissively declaring, “Putin’s fine, we’re all fine.”

The West does need to be more cognizant of Russia’s global agenda, and NATO is key. The alliance is far more than our “paying for Europe’s protection.” It was the most important mechanism for maintaining the postwar security and trade order that helped no one more than the United States. The long-term stability encouraged by the alliance produced tangible benefits worth far more than Trump’s zero-sum calculus suggests—in collective defense savings, in trade, in foreign investment, in economic growth, and in deference to America’s wishes on European matters large and small. NATO, however imperfectly, remains the bulwark against Russian expansionism, thwarting Putin’s attempts to divide the West against itself and projecting strength and unity in transatlantic security.

The alliance needs reinvigoration and redefinition, yes. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty speaks of an “armed attack,” but in the present age an “armed attack” may not initially involve tanks and planes. Russia is busy mastering the arts of asymmetrical warfare—cyber attacks, attacks on electrical infrastructure, propaganda campaigns—and the treaty ought to at least attempt to contemplate these possibilities.

This is the problem with Trump’s focus on his misguided sense of “fairness” in NATO defense spending. NATO needs U.S. leadership as it adapts to a new threat environment and counters an increasingly provocative Russia. Trump is only directing attention away from crucial priorities by whining about the “dues” owed by our most committed allies.

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