To hear President Donald Trump tell it, NATO allies are the J. Wellington Wimpy to the United States' Popeye, cowardly and unrepentant freeloaders who might "gladly pay us Tuesday for a military base today." During his recent stop in Europe, Mr. Trump pounded that point home, scolding European leaders to their faces, telling them they "owe massive amounts of money" to the U.S. and NATO.
"NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations," the president said in Brussels. He claimed further that 23 of 28 members are not paying "what they should be paying and what they're supposed to be paying for their defense."
There's a way to see President Trump's remarks as truthful, but it requires a certain suspension of normal standards of accuracy — and maybe a bit of squinting. As alternative facts go, this is not as blatant as this week's runners-up, including Sean Spicer's flowery description of the president's travels as "incredible," "historic," "unprecedented," "extraordinarily successful" and a "historic turning point," given the rather modest accomplishments of the actual journey. An honorable mention also goes to White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks' assessment of the president's "magnetic personality that exudes positive energy" that's given late-night comedians matrial for days: "He is brilliant with a great sense of humor ... and an amazing ability to make people feel special and aspire to be more than they even thought possible," she said.
Mr. Trump's prevarication tops them because it's so destructive, foolishly misleading and ill-timed. His implication that NATO allies don't pay their dues is just false. His suggestion that they aren't paying enough for their own defense represents a major failure of omission. He seldom, if ever, acknowledges the history here or exactly what those countries are required to do — and already agreed to do.
First, a bit of explanation. NATO's actual operating budget is covered by a funding formula based on the size of each nation's economy. Everyone is paid up. Nobody owes any back dues. Perhaps one can argue that ability to pay is an unreasonable standard for these assessments (the U.S. ends up footing 22 percent of that bill), but President Trump hasn't done so.
Second, NATO allies have agreed to a goal of providing for their own defense to the tune of at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product. Only five of 28 nations currently meet this voluntary standard. It's been a sticking point with U.S. leaders for years. But there's actually been progress made — those countries pledged to meet the 2 percent goal several years ago when Russia annexed Crimea, setting 2024 as their timetable. That's not an easy call for a country like Germany, which has good reason (World War II) for its ambivalence toward the military. Given the continued threat posed by Russian expansionism and Mr. Trump's tepid endorsement of the NATO alliance, however, it seems likely that a lot of Europeans may already be thinking of spending more out of necessity.
And even here, the U.S. should be a little be hesitant to claim moral superiority, since the imbalance in defense spending was this nation's choice, particularly the costly invasion of Iraq, which wasn't a NATO action at all. The bulk of U.S. defense spending (including bases in Europe) has been to protect U.S. interests, not as some gift to friends. Are we spending too much on the military? Absolutely, but that's not Germany's fault or that of France or Spain or NATO generally. It's been the priority of elected leaders in the U.S. including Mr. Trump.
Suggesting Europeans "owe" the U.S. is worse than misleading, it's destructive of the NATO alliance. The whole point of NATO is for its members to spring to the defense of each other. Driving a wedge between the U.S. and its fellow NATO stakeholders — after Mr. Trump has expressed so much skepticism about NATO's relevance during his campaign — can only embolden its enemies. So did the president really want to give Vladimir Putin this favor? When Trump-Russia connection is already under federal investigation?
We concede that Mr. Trump knows about stiffing people with whom one has an agreement. We would suggest that's not what's happened in the NATO alliance, and if the U.S. truly wants to pay less for Europe's defense, it probably ought not weaken the alliance or embolden Russia by misstating the facts.