Donald Trump had some tough words for the Germans at the NATO summit in Belgium on Thursday. "The Germans are bad, very bad," he reportedly told Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Union. "Look at the millions of cars that they're selling in the USA. Horrible. We're gonna stop that."It is certainly true that Germany runs a big trade surplus with the world and with the United States.... But Trump can't stop the German cars from coming in to the U.S. because, to a large degree, they're already here.... Trump could try to stop the sales of German cars in the U.S. But that would involve shutting down a bunch of factories on American soil that employ American workers and use a lot of U.S.-produced parts. Yes, that would be bad -- very bad.
Yesterday was not a successful day for the amateur president. European leaders went out of their way
to try to accommodate Trump and his, shall we say, unique qualities, but he managed to alienate many of America's closest allies anyway. There was the cringe-worthy shove
of Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic. There was the equally embarrassing handshake
with French President Emmanuel Macron. There was the speech in which Trump chose not to
explicitly endorse his commitment to Article V of the NATO treaty, despite expectations.But in the end, what struck me as the most significant development was Trump's brazen ignorance.The fact that the U.S. president still doesn't understand trade with Germany is a striking example, but let's also consider this portion
of the prepared speech he delivered in Brussels:
"...I have been very, very direct with Secretary Stoltenberg and members of the Alliance in saying that NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations, for 23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they're supposed to be paying for their defense."This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States. And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years."
Trump, in other words, still doesn't know how NATO works. Member nations are expected to devote a portion of their annual budgets to defense spending -- plenty of previous American presidents have also urged NATO allies to increase their investments -- but for countries that haven't reached their threshold, the target dates don't arrive until 2024.Even putting this aside, it's not as if member nations receive a bill every year from Washington, D.C. For Trump to say our allies "owe massive amounts of money" is plainly absurd.But in a broader context, what domestic observers need to consider is why the American president feels so comfortable cozying up to authoritarian regimes, while pushing away our allies in Europe that have created a pillar for global stability for generations.There's a growing group of autocrats – Russia's Vladimir Putin, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, North Korea's Kim Jong-un, Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte – who've enjoyed Trump's public praise, and yet, the American president seems to clash with the heads of liberal, Western democracies.Even on his current trip, Trump traveled to Saudi Arabia -- a country Barack Obama repeatedly pressured to improve its record on human rights -- where he assured his hosts he wasn't there to lecture. And yet, there was Trump in Belgium yesterday, eager to scold NATO allies with an argument he didn't seem to understand.Yesterday was an opportunity for the American president to reassure our partners abroad about our partnerships and commitments. Trump, for reasons that deserve more scrutiny, chose to do the opposite.