The old ways of handling U.S. alliances seem to be coming to an end. Donald Trump, fresh off the G7 summit among the world’s preeminent industrialized nations—where what had seemed to be cracks in the relationships among allies were revealed to be chasms—will meet next week with fellow leaders of NATO members in Brussels. Don’t expect happy family photographs.
In remarks Thursday in Great Falls, Montana, Trump previewed the message he’ll take to the summit: “I’m gonna tell NATO: ‘You gotta start paying your bills. The United States is not gonna take care of everything.’”
The message itself isn’t new. Trump and his predecessors have repeatedly said that NATO countries need to spend more on defense. Where they differ, however, is that past American presidents have pushed the importance of NATO defense spending partly to strengthen the alliance against Russia, but have assured NATO of U.S. protection regardless. Trump, on the other hand, says he thinks Vladimir Putin is “fine.” His insistence on higher NATO spending seems to come not from a desire to confront Russia, but from resentment that America is getting a raw deal. He has even appeared to make U.S. support for NATO conditional, saying Thursday that he couldn’t “guarantee” U.S. protection of Germany.
It might be tempting to dismiss Trump’s remarks as part of his style, a tone he employs when talking to his supporters. But this would overlook the fact that on just about every foreign-policy issue where Trump has expressed strong views—from trade to immigration to North Korea—he has, in one way or another, upended prior U.S. policy. So it will likely be with NATO—despite assurances from Trump’s aides that all is well with the alliance.
“The overall theme of this summit is going to be NATO’s strength and unity,” Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, told reporters on a conference call Thursday, hours before Trump’s remarks in Montana. Responding to a question on the U.S. military presence in Germany (prompted by reports Trump had “expressed interest in removing” the roughly 32,000 active-duty troops stationed there), she replied: “There is nothing being said at all about the troop alignment in Germany or anything that would change the 32,000-troop force that we have in Germany.”
This looked like it could presage a repetition of what happened at last month’s G7 summit in Canada. U.S. officials had said ahead of time that despite differences among group on free trade, there would be consensus on most, even if not all, issues at the summit. But it all unraveled after Trump took umbrage at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s criticism of U.S. tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum; called the Canadian leader “dishonest and weak;” and retracted his administration’s endorsement of the joint communique he signed at the end of the meeting. Expect something similar at the NATO summit in Brussels.
Hutchison and other U.S. officials might try to persuade U.S. allies that their bond is strong, but ultimately, as Trump himself put it last year, he “is the only one that matters.” On Thursday in Montana, he returned to a familiar theme: how Europe—and Germany, in particular—takes advantage of the U.S. in commerce and defense.
“We’re paying anywhere between 70 and 90 percent to protect Europe and that’s fine. Of course, they kill us on trade,” he said. (The U.S. pays for about 70 percent of NATO’s overall budget.) “They kill us on trade. They kill us on other things. They make it impossible to do business in Europe. Yet they come in and they sell their Mercedes and their BMWs to us.”
Europe’s auto sales to the U.S. are a particular annoyance to Trump because, as he points out, the U.S. has a 2.5 percent tariff on European auto imports while the EU has a 10 percent tariff on foreign-made cars. Trump has consequently threatened the European car industry with tariffs, a move that would disproportionately affect Germany. And he claimed in Montana that the U.S. has a $151 billion in trade deficit with the EU (the actual figure is $101 billion), and “on top of that they kill us with NATO. They kill us.”
Trump told those attending the rally that the U.S. pays 4 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, much more than the 2 percent NATO has asked its members, as a rough guideline within the next decade, to spend on defense. (The U.S. figure is closer to 3.6 percent.) And Germany, he claimed, pays 1 percent. (It spends 1.2 percent.) Of NATO’s 29 members, four others spend 2 percent of GDP or more on defense, a target members reiterated most recently in September 2014. But overall defense spending is up. (To get a sense of how arbitrary the the 2-percent figure is, read this.)
But perceived fairness in transactions—especially among allies—is an important point for Trump. As he said in Montana: “I said, ‘You know, Angela [Merkel], I can’t guarantee it, but we’re protecting you, and it means a lot more to you … because I don’t know how much protection we get by protecting you.’”
Trump’s remarks will likely get attention for their tenor and tone, but what he said next is perhaps more informative about how he sees the trans-Atlantic alliance.
“They go out and make a gas deal, oil and gas, from Russia, where they pay billions and billions of dollars to Russia,” he said of Germany’s energy purchases from Russia, which is the top supplier of oil and natural gas to Europe. “They want to protect against Russia and yet they pay billions of dollars to Russia, and we’re the schmucks paying for the whole thing.”
In other words, if Russia isn’t a threat, what is the U.S. paying for? European leaders might argue that by engaging Russia, and integrating it into the European economic system, European countries develop greater leverage with Moscow, making it less of a threat. That rationale is debatable, but Trump’s own views of Russia and Putin hardly inspire confidence in Europe. On Thursday night, while talking about how well prepared he was for his meeting with Putin, which will occur days after his meeting with NATO, Trump chided his critics. He said they were skeptical about his preparation and about Putin. “You know, Putin is fine. He’s fine. We’re all people,” he said. “Will I be prepared? I've been preparing for this stuff all my life.”