After a two-day NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, President Donald Trump is visiting the United Kingdom, where protesters are gathering in London and the Green Day song "American Idiot" has scaled the British pop charts. With the summit now in the rearview mirror, it is now all but totally clear, that even once close friends within NATO have lost all patience with Trump.
Following an impromptu victory lap, Trump took at a hastily called news conference at the end of the summit to crow over a claim that NATO allies had agreed to increase defense spending "at levels they never thought of before." French President Emmanuel Macron told quite a different version. "The communique [released by member states on Wednesday] is clear," he said. "It reaffirms a commitment to 2% in 2024. That is all." This is a direct and blatant contradiction of the American President by a leader who was once his best friend in Europe. There won't be any extra money forthcoming from any country, beyond a pledge made years ago that everyone would meet the thus far largely elusive 2% spending level.
For what's approaching 70 years, from the darkest days of the Cold War, through the Cuban missile crisis, with West and East nose-to-nose, at times minutes from a catastrophic nuclear exchange, as the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated, NATO has guaranteed the supremacy of the West and the safety of democracy. Now, never more vividly apparent than in his behavior Wednesday, President Donald Trump seems perfectly inclined to dismantle it, if that serves his purpose.
That would not be a good idea at all.
America needs NATO -- a strong, united and functioning NATO, with a single purpose and speaking with a single, loud, powerful voice — more than ever during its seven decades of existence. With a European Union strained by powerful forces of the left and right struggling for supremacy from Britain to the Baltics, with immigrants clamoring for entry and ever newer torments from its ancestral enemy Russia, NATO has been a single constant that has stood largely unchallenged.
Among the many possible purposes for Trump's tough-guy circus act in Brussels (before he hits the road on Thursday for London and then onward to Helsinki for what could prove a true rendezvous with destiny, his first summit with Vladimir Putin), two stand out as most likely and equally misguided: politics and money.
Politically speaking, Trump appears desperately anxious to put his own peculiar brand on everything he touches around the world, just as he has for decades on every real estate project he has ever developed.
It's even more likely that Trump's behavior is all about economics. He began his latest tirade against NATO even before landing in Brussels -- raising yet again the misleading specter of an entire continent that has purportedly failed to carry its weight in paying for its defense, relying instead on American largesse.
The key question is whether Trump's bludgeoning of NATO will really strengthen or improve the alliance's ability to stand up to a resurgent Russia. Probably not. No doubt Vladimir Putin will view with some glee the discord that Trump has managed to sow among the Kremlin's most serious challengers to his priorities.
NATO has a rule, established after repeated complaints by previous American presidents, that all 29 members should be devoting 2% of their GDP to their military by 2024. When Trump arrived in office, four nations had met the 2% number, four more are on track to hit that threshold this year and two-thirds have plans in place to reach that level by 2024. Still, some countries have more than carried their weight without meeting the number. France, at 1.79%, has backed up American forces with its own troops from Afghanistan to western Africa. And forces of member nations have fought and died alongside Americans on every continent throughout NATO's long history.
Trump was not the author of the 2% rule, merely the enforcer. So, it was all the more shocking when he dropped his new bombshell at the first plenary meeting of the NATO summit: a demand to double to 4% of GDP the amount each ally contributes to its defense, a demand that no NATO member could feasibly conceive of meeting.
And while Trump's budgetary complaint has been a constant, and hardly nuanced, theme from the earliest day of his campaign, at an opening breakfast with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, he compounded this effrontery by chastising Germany for being "totally controlled by Russia." He was referring to the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will bring large quantities of Russian natural gas to Germany.
Which brings us back to the second and perhaps most important purpose for Trump's action against NATO -- an underlying drumbeat of rank commercialism.
Spending more on armaments for most of the allies means more arms purchases from American industry, more revenues and more American jobs. At the same time, easing back on gas imports from Russia could mean more German imports of natural gas from American producers. Also, such a shift could help even the trade imbalance that is another perpetual Trump complaint against Europe, and specifically Germany.
Trump's sudden demand to double the 2% figure to 4% -- with the United States, at the top among all NATO nations, at 3.6% -- produced shock and horror. Ursula von der Leyen, defense minister of Germany, which is at barely 1.2% and unlikely to reach even a full 2% in the next five years, pointed out that linking defense spending purely to GDP is very much a moving target for countries like hers, whose economy keeps growing dramatically.
"It's diplomacy by humiliation and by intimidation," William Cohen, the former secretary of defense told CNBC in an interview. "Frankly we cannot defend the United States without allies."
Yet NATO has done very nicely throughout its existence, often with a fraction of the numbers currently allocated for defense. In the age of tank warfare and the blitzkrieg, it created an awesome ground deterrent to prevent tanks of its communist, Soviet-led counterpart, the Warsaw Pact, from pouring through the Fulda Gap, fanning out across Germany into Europe. At the same time, under the shelter of a never-wavering nuclear umbrella, it faced down a succession of Soviet leaders from Stalin through Gorbachev as an increasingly united Europe prospered and grew into an important trading partner and customer for American goods and services.
Most of the NATO leaders tried to put up a brave front in the face of Trump's outrageous comments throughout the day, at least publicly. Stoltenberg smiled at reporters when he said that "the breakfast was good -- fruit salad, toast and orange juice -- paid for by the US."
Sadly, Trump has largely forgotten the central tenet of the art of any deal -- or any alliance -- that it is truly successful only when both sides feel good about the outcome, or a win-win all concerned. Trump seems to have decided sometime early in his career as a real estate developer -- one who has been forced into multiple bankruptcies -- that a deal is good only when it's good for him and he has somehow managed to ram it unwillingly down the throat of an adversary.
NATO, however, is not a real estate venture to be bartered away on a whim. It is very much a central part of what America is as a nation and the way of life most Americans are still determined to preserve for themselves -- and one hopes for all 29 of its members as well.