As Donald Trump departed yesterday for this week's NATO summit in Brussels, the president devoted a fair amount of time to complaining about the international alliance in ways that didn't make a lot of sense. Trump, while characterizing NATO as some kind of protection racket, insisted that many of our allies are "delinquent" in their defense payments and should "reimburse" the United States.
Making matters worse, as the gathering started to get underway today, the American leader came out swinging -- at America's friends. NBC News reported:
Speaking even before the NATO summit began here, and amid domestic political turmoil for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump said it is not fair to American taxpayers that Germany buys oil and gas from Russia while enjoying the umbrella of defense provided by U.S. dollars."Germany is a captive of Russia," he said, pointing out that the country pays "billions and billions of dollars" to Russia for energy.... "Germany is totally controlled by Russia."
At a breakfast with Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, Trump went on to say that "many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money," adding, "They're delinquent, as far as I'm concerned."
A few months into the Republican's presidency, Trump sat down for an interview with the Associated Press, which touched on his earlier criticisms of NATO. He referenced an exchange he had during the campaign with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, in which then-candidate Trump expressed deep concerns about the security alliance despite "not knowing much about NATO."
In other words, according to Trump, he spoke with great conviction about a key area of U.S. foreign policy, despite the fact that -- by his own admission -- he had no idea what he was talking about.
The trouble is, the American president still doesn't know what he's talking about.
In reality, Germany is neither "a captive" of Russia nor "controlled by" Russia. The fact that the two countries have an energy agreement really isn't all that interesting -- trade with Russia has been common for generations, even during the Cold War -- and for Trump to use this as an excuse to lash out publicly at an ally is ridiculous, even for him.
If the projecting American president were interested in seeing a leader who actually appears to be unduly influenced by Moscow, I'd be happy to hand him a mirror.
Just as importantly, despite having been in office for a year and a half, Trump still doesn't understand how NATO funding works. This has been fact-checked many times, but in case the White House needs a refresher:
NATO has a budget to cover shared costs and some equipment that is used in joint operations, and all 29 member countries contribute to it according to their gross national income. None of the allies has failed to pay its contribution.Mr. Trump's complaint is that, while NATO has agreed that each member country should spend at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, most of them do not. But none has failed to comply with that agreement, because the 2 percent figure is a target to be reached by 2024.According to NATO, all member countries have significantly raised military spending since 2014, and eight of them are expected to meet the goal in 2018.
Hypothetically, if Trump were desperate to slash military spending in the United States, but couldn't because our allies on the other side of the Atlantic failed to meet defense commitments, the president's antagonistic rhetoric about countries "owing" us money might be marginally more coherent.
But since Trump has no interest in cutting military spending, the whole argument is absurd.
The larger question is why in the world the American president is doing this. It's possible Trump throws tantrums like these because he hopes to tie global security to trade considerations, leveraging his misguided criticisms of NATO to extract concessions from our trading partners. That would be a mistake, but maybe that's what he's thinking.
Or, alternatively, Trump is laying the groundwork for further undermining the NATO alliance itself, which would satisfy the wishes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched an attack on the U.S. elections in order to help put Trump in power.
Trump's ambassador to NATO, former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, said last week, "The overall theme of this summit is going to be NATO's strength and unity."
Perhaps she forgot to tell her boss?