U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference after a summit of heads of state and government at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium,...
Geert Vanden Wijngaert

Trump’s new criticisms of NATO don’t make any sense

One of Donald Trump’s favorite talking points is that our NATO allies have been “delinquent” in their financial commitments. That’s always been wrong – it reflects fundamental confusion about how the alliance works – and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) pressed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about this on Wednesday.

“That’s a misnomer, is it not?” Corker asked, referring to the president’s rhetoric. Pompeo conceded, “That’s correct.”

It was a memorable moment: the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the president’s secretary of State agreed publicly that a frequent Trump claim about NATO is just wrong.

The trouble is, the president can’t seem to stop saying false things about NATO. The Independent, a British outlet, took note of Trump’s remarks yesterday to steelworkers in Illinois, where he complained bitterly about the alliance at a speech that wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with foreign policy. After repeating the bogus “delinquent” line about NATO members – he apparently missed the Pompeo testimony – Trump just kept going.

In remarks that will once more raise questions about his commitment to the treaty, he said: “The one thing I know about NATO, for sure, is it’s better for Europe than it is for us.” […]

“Well, let me just tell you what happened with NATO. Last year they paid $44 billion more than they ever paid before. And, if you look at NATO, it was going this way, it was going down. Everybody was delinquent. They were…not everybody but almost everybody. The United States wasn’t. By the way, Germany pays one percent [of its GDP] and we pay 4.3 percent. You think that’s good?”

There are three broad problems with this anti-NATO barrage. The first is that Trump was wrong about practically every detail. The increased expenditure aren’t $44 billion (it’s $41 billion); investments weren’t “going down” (they’ve climbed every year since 2014); no one was “delinquent” (that’s not how NATO works); and we don’t spent 4.3% of GDP on defense (it’s 3.5%).

As for the idea that NATO is better for Europe, let’s not forget that the alliance only applied Article V of its charter once: when Americans were attacked on 9/11.

The second is that Trump is an alarmingly slow learner. After admitting that he spoke about NATO as a candidate without knowing enough about it, the president has attended two NATO summits, met repeatedly with top officials from NATO countries, received countless foreign-policy briefings from White House officials, and Trump still seems to lack a rudimentary understanding of the basics. There’s just no excuse for such ignorance.

And third, even if Trump had some grasp of the basics, the underlying problem is that the American president remains hostile toward the world’s most successful security alliance for reasons that don’t make sense.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, of course, couldn’t be more pleased to see Trump’s frequent criticisms of the NATO alliance. It’s hard not to wonder whether that helps explain the president’s antagonistic posture.

Donald Trump and Foreign Policy

Trump's new criticisms of NATO don't make any sense