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.”