For those who may have missed the last two days of in Brussels, here’s a brief summary: President Donald Trump approached his NATO allies with all the diplomacy and tact of a slumlord who thinks he’s been stiffed by tenants but lacks both people and accounting skills. Hour after hour, he badgered and berated the leaders of European nations, badly overstated the matters of defense spending and even made the claim that Germany is captive to Russia — which was a classic pot calling the kettle black (or maybe “topf” calling the “kessel” “schwarz”).
Even by the standards of a man who prefers to judge America’s closest allies far more harshly than its enemies, it was a bull (“stier”) in the china shop (“china-shop” — oh, those Germans) moment. And to what end? Mr. Trump’s own conclusion: “I think NATO is much stronger now than it was two days ago,” he told reporters at a final news conference on Thursday. While it may take a while for exactly what happened in Brussels to become clear, we feel safe in saying that had to come as quite a surprise to the other NATO leaders who had just been whipsawed by two days of reality TV-style drama.
That’s not to suggest President Trump spouted 100 percent falsehoods during his trip. Mr. Trump in Belgium was much like Mr. Trump in the U.S. — he took a thread of truth and twisted it beyond recognition. His main point, that many European countries, Germany included, spend less on their own defense needs then they ought to (for their own sake as well as that of the alliance) is a valid one. Past U.S. presidents have made the same point. They’ve just felt less of a need to act so petulantly, compromise NATO integrity, or misrepresent the facts while doing so. Some examples:
- Mr. Trump said European countries “owe us a tremendous amount of money” and are “delinquent.” NATO funding doesn’t work like that. What aides later explained is that he meant certain countries were not yet spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense as they committed four years ago to do by 2024. Nobody owes any money to the U.S., which spends far more on its military than its allies but spreads it around the globe, a far more costly circumstance (which helps explain its much greater spending).
- The president further suggested that the U.S. is “expected to defend” NATO members, and that’s misleading, too. It’s an alliance in which all members look out for each other. The last time it happened? It wasn’t in Europe at all. Members rushed in to help the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 with hundreds of Canadian and European soldiers dying in Afghanistan. That wasn’t just the last time that happened, by the way, it’s the only time in the alliance’s 69-year history.
- President Trump was particularly harsh on Germany, suggesting that the country had become a “captive of Russia,” singling out the country’s dependence on Russian oil and gas. But, again, he overstated the circumstances. “Germany will have almost 70 percent of their country controlled by Russia with natural gas,” the president told NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at one point. Experts say Germany gets about half its natural gas from Russia, not 70 percent, but how “captive” is it? German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a survivor of Soviet-controlled East Germany, has been far more critical of President Putin and Russia’s annexation of Crimea than Mr. Trump, who recently lobbied for Russian readmission to the G-7.
Again, is Germany too closely economically allied with Russia? That’s a fair question. Should Germany and other European nations spend more on their own defense? Absolutely. But Mr. Trump has gone full “alternative fact” on both these issues, and while that might endear him to his base (being distrustful of Europe is a thing among conservatives), it’s lunacy to think he’s strengthening an alliance that’s still vital to U.S. security and global prosperity. Small wonder that quite a few European leaders and perhaps even Canada’s Justin Trudeau are treating him like a relative who thinks he’s a chicken. They don’t make a fuss because they “need the eggs,” as that old joke goes. If NATO miraculously does become stronger, it won’t be because of U.S. leadership, it will be because our allies chicken danced around it.