Trump’s War on NATO

White House chief of staff John Kelly, at the end of the table, looking displeased at NATO breakfast.

American tourists in Europe sympathize with John Kelly, the White House chief of staff. After all, it is hard to do a full day’s touring on just croissants and coffee. Americans demand a hearty breakfast of eggs, potatoes, a sizable slab of breakfast meat, toast, and more. Belly full, the tourist is ready to take on the Eiffel Tower or the Roman Colosseum.

So, when Kelly at breakfast Wednesday in Brussels visibly cringed, shifted his body several times, and pursed his lips as he looked away, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had a ready-made explanation for the chief of staff’s discomfort. “[Kelly] was displeased because he was expecting a full breakfast and there were only pastries and cheese,” Sanders said in a statement to The Washington Post. Never mind that there is no food on the plates or table. Despite what was apparent to everyone else, the official story was that Kelly wanted a full breakfast, and he was not at all displeased that President Donald Trump was telling NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, “Germany is totally controlled by Russia.”

President Trump meets the press in Brussels after NATO summit.

That was the prelude to this week’s tumultuous NATO summit, which deteriorated the next day as Trump gave a news conference full of lies and marked by his ignorance of history. It probably was a good thing breakfast was not served during Trump’s question and answer session because Kelly’s distress might have turned into dyspepsia. 

As has been his way for years, Trump lied about matters small and large, inconsequential and consequential. He could not help during the news conference talking about his 2016 electoral victory (yes, more than a-year-and-a-half ago now), a matter of great importance to this most insecure of men. He bragged again of carrying Wisconsin, claiming that even Ronald Reagan failed to do so in his landslide1984 victory. “One of the states we won — Wisconsin — I didn’t realize this until fairly recently, that was the one state that Ronald Reagan didn’t win when he ran the board his second time,” Trump said in Brussels. Not true, of course, as the only state Reagan lost that year was neighboring Minnesota, home of his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale (Reagan actually won Wisconsin twice, in 1980 and 1984). Trump has made this claim before. Its falsity is verifiable, as he must know from watching television accounts of his remarks (which he does incessantly) and as he probably has been told by aides. But, truth is whatever Trump says it is at any given moment, so he continues to repeat this easily disproven statement.

American and Polish soldiers during NSTO exercise in June.

Trump’s war with truth was evident on more serious matters as well. On the contentious issue of NATO countries spending more on defense, the president claimed the allies “have substantially upped their commitment and now we’re happy and have a very, very powerful, very, very strong NATO.” In 2014, NATO countries agreed to spend two percent of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024. Trump suggested that some nations may go significantly beyond that figure to as high as four percent (the United States currently spends about 3.5 percent of its GDP on defense, a figure projected to decrease in coming years). “Everyone’s agreed to substantially up their commitment,” the president said. “They are going to up it at levels never thought of before.” French President Emmanuel Macron wasted no time contradicting Trump by saying no new agreements had been reached. “Everyone agreed to raise spending as they agreed in 2014, and everyone agreed to respect the commitments they made,” Macron said in a news conference following Trump’s.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump in Brussels.

The brouhaha over defense spending is part of the larger question of what is Trump’s motive in trying to blow up the Atlantic alliance. The president appears ignorant of the history behind the creation of NATO, and the benefits the alliance provides for America. NATO was a crucial part of the world order the United States helped create out of the destruction of World War II. NATO helped keep the peace during the Cold War and has remained a key part of protecting global security in the age of terrorism. Trump clearly knows little about NATO’s history and now believes the alliance is a bad deal for America. “I don’t know how much protection we get by protecting you,” Trump says he once told German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

Trump is wrong to downplay NATO’s significant role in the modern world. As former ambassador to NATO Nicolas Burns writes, “NATO’s formidable conventional and nuclear forces are the most effective way to protect North America and Europe… from attack.” Trump may be skeptical, but there are threats to collective security in the 21st century. Russia’s Vladmir Putin is an adversary (though Trump in full business-mode refers to Putin as a “competitor”), and terrorism has not disappeared. The United States has depended upon NATO for assistance in Afghanistan and in curbing the Islamic State. European troops now protect the peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, freeing American soldiers for other duties. 

President Trump addressing a crowd of supporters in Great Falls Montana, July 5, 2018.

Trump’s attacks on NATO are having a deleterious impact on the alliance. A recent poll shows a stunning 42 percent of Germans want American troops out of their country, while only 37 percent want the 35,000 U.S. military personnel to remain. This is a shocking development in a country that has been the linchpin of American strategy in maintaining the peace in Europe. But, Trump cares little about what Germans think. He does care, however, about what his supporters in America think, and the Trump base loves his attacks on NATO and foreigners in general. Trumpistas are ready to believe the world is full of freeloaders, whether they be our NATO allies not paying their fair share or immigrants allegedly flocking to America for handouts. Trump’s criticism of our NATO allies is part of his larger attack on what he calls unfair European trade practices. Trumpistas slogan — America First!

Weakening NATO is not in America’s interest. It is, however, in the interest of Russia, which is where Trump heads after a few days in the United Kingdom. Trump plans on holding a one-on-one meeting, without aides and with no official record, with the wily former KGB officer Putin when they meet on July 16 in Helsinki, Finland. Now, that may give John Kelly a serious case of indigestion, regardless or what is on the menu!

By the way, anyone notice that while Trump was busy destroying the Atlantic alliance no one was talking about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh?

Posted July 13, 2018


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