For many in Washington and Europe’s major capitals, Donald Trump’s attendance at the two-day NATO summit now under way in Brussels is being watched with deep apprehension, given his widely voiced complaints over NATO members’ alleged failure to pay their fair share of combined expenses and his seeming indifference to the alliance’s presumed role as the bedrock of US defense policy. Trump renewed his recriminations of NATO laggards upon arriving in Brussels, saying, “The United States is spending far too much and other countries are not paying enough.”
With a Trump-Putin encounter coming a few days later, many are arguing that failure to bolster NATO’s resolve could give Putin the opening he needs to wrest concessions from Trump. A broad cross section of political leaders, including many prominent Democrats, therefore called on Trump to be nice to our NATO partners, reaffirm America’s ties to the alliance, and draw on this collective spirit to pummel Putin when the two heads of state meet in Helsinki. From the mass media, then, we see only two potential roles for Trump at NATO: as spoiler or as savior. But are these the only options we can envision?
Until now, most of the conversation regarding Trump’s visit has focused on the military spending of NATO members, with very little devoted to NATO’s actual mission. Trump insists that every alliance member commit at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product to defense—a target currently met by only eight of NATO’s 29 members: the United States, Britain, Greece, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. The fact that most member states—including such heavyweights as France and Germany—have not reached that level has led him to bad-mouth the alliance, claiming that its members are freeloading on US taxpayers. “I’ll tell NATO: ‘You’ve got to start paying your bills,’” Trump had declared at a recent rally in Montana, where he complained that Americans were “the schmucks that are paying for the whole thing.”
NATO’s numerous defenders in Washington and elsewhere claim that other members are on track to reach the 2 percent target and that the Europeans contribute to alliance security in other ways, for example by hosting US and allied forces on their territory. Some members have contributed to peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and US-led missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of this has satisfied Trump, who seems obsessed with the (essentially meaningless) 2 percent spending level. “Over the last year, about $40 billion more has been given by other countries to help NATO,” Trump told reporters in Brussels, “but that’s not nearly enough.”
Trump also focused particular ire on Germany, Europe’s leading economy and a favorite White House target on trade issues. The president appears particularly incensed that Germany continues to import natural gas from Russia (so as to reduce its reliance on coal and nuclear power), while holding the line on sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “I think it’s very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia,” he said in Brussels, while “we’re protecting Germany.”