If you’ve read a summary of the goings-on at this week’s NATO summit in London in any major American news outlet, you’ve probably read a lot about President Donald Trump and his personal spats with other NATO leaders, and little else. A headline from CNN — “Trump drama turns NATO gathering into a diplomatic soap opera” — neatly captures the tone of the coverage, if not of the event itself. What was meant to be the celebration of a 70-year-old alliance turned into an exercise in managing a 73-year-old man’s ego.
You read about Trump calling Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau “two-faced” after Trudeau was caught on a hot mic making fun of Trump with his Dutch, French, and British counterparts on Tuesday. You also learned about the lengthy, impromptu news conferences in which Trump fielded questions about his impeachment (“a hoax”), Brexit (“I called it the day before”), Britain’s Prince Andrew (“I don’t know Prince Andrew”), and other topics unrelated to the transatlantic alliance. And you probably heard about how he left the summit in a huff without holding one final press availability, predicting (correctly) that the media would give him grief for that.
To find out what actually happened at the summit, what decisions were made or what issues were discussed, you have to dig fairly deep down into, say, the Washington Post’s write-up, which devotes 13 paragraphs to Trump’s spat with Trudeau before even beginning to address the substance of the meeting. And substance there was! It was by all accounts a fairly productive summit, with the leaders of the 29 member states signing off on a number of initiatives, including to protect energy and telecommunication infrastructure, expand defense planning into space, and respond to the growing global influence of China.
But Trump’s policies, politics, and personality still overshadowed the entire event. His prepared statement to the closed-door meeting of heads of government chided them yet again for not spending enough on defense, reflecting his apparent perception of the transatlantic alliance as an American protection racket in which the racketeer is being underpaid. He punctuated this statement passive-aggressively by having lunch with only the leaders of the eight other NATO countries that have fulfilled their commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, and called Canada and Germany “delinquent” for not yet meeting that threshold.
Yet in order to head off a full-on fiscal tantrum from Trump, the NATO leadership made the summit all about highlighting the growing contributions of other member states and reducing U.S. obligations. “Allies believe they have worked hard to construct a positive narrative that Trump can buy into,” a senior official from one member state told Axios prior to the summit. The idea was to let Trump take credit for making our allies pick up more of the mutual defense bill, soft-pedaling the fact that this budget-boosting started before he took office. And maybe it worked: At least this time, he didn’t openly threaten to pull the U.S. out of the alliance or repudiate its mutual defense obligations unless the other countries ponied up.
In addition to Trudeau, Trump’s other frenemy du jour was French president Emmanuel Macron. Macron actually got Trump to say some nice things about NATO by making some incendiary comments of his own last month, stating in an interview with the Economist that the alliance was suffering “brain death” in part because of the waning commitment of the U.S. under Trump. The key piece of evidence he gave for the disintegration of the bloc was Turkey’s recent intervention in Syria, which Trump effectively green-lit. These unilateral decisions by two NATO members, Macron argued, undermined the very principle of a coordinated military strategy.
The president criticized those comments on Tuesday as “very insulting,” “nasty,” and “disrespectful,” claiming that France needs NATO more than anyone else and that, by the way, the U.S. benefits from it the least (the only time Article 5 has ever been invoked was for the benefit of the U.S., in response to 9/11).
In his huffy response, however, Trump unwittingly underscored Macron’s point. Trump clearly sees the North Atlantic Treaty as a big, bad deal, in which the U.S. agrees to spend a lot of money to protect other countries and gets nothing in exchange. Such is his understanding of alliances and treaties generally. He regularly broadcasts his disdain for NATO and his lack of interest in upholding the U.S. commitment to it. Can Trump really argue against Macron when he says: “We find ourselves … with an American president who doesn’t share our idea of the European project,” that “American policy is diverging from that project,” or that there is “no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies?”
Let’s roll the tape: Trump thinks the European Union was “set up to take advantage of the United States.” He has threatened to release Islamic State fighters and let them slip into Europe if European governments won’t take them into custody and put them on trial posthaste (a threat recently echoed by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan). He has aligned the U.S. more and more with right-wing authoritarian strongmen like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, on whom he heaps praise, while kissing off its core allies in the liberal West. On Tuesday, he expressed resentment that the U.S. is defending Europe against Russia, which “may or may not be a foe.” With a leader like Trump at the helm, it is not only reasonable but practically an imperative for European leaders like Macron to start asking whether they really want to rely on this Cold War–era relic as the linchpin of their security.
After all, Trump isn’t the only one whose commitment to Article 5 is in doubt; European public opinion on the mutual-defense clause is notably low, with most Europeans saying they wouldn’t want their country to take sides in a conflict between the U.S. and Russia or China. This sentiment precedes Trump, also showing up in a survey from 2015. NATO skeptics point to data like this and argue that the foreign- and defense-policy interests and priorities of the U.S. and Western Europe are no longer aligned — and that’s okay. The alliance has outlived its original purpose, critics say, and has suffered from mission creep since the end of the Cold War. With no Soviet behemoth looming across the Iron Curtain, perhaps it’s time to let go of the 20th-century geopolitical framework and let Europe chart its own course on defense. Macron, not coincidentally, is trying to do just that.
Concluding this year’s summit, the NATO leaders decided not to meet again until 2021, by which time some of them surely hope to be dealing with a different U.S. president. Those committed to preserving the alliance as is may suppose that business as usual can resume when things get back to normal in Washington. But the European leaders would have to really be brain-dead not to realize that a country dysfunctional enough to elect Donald Trump president once is dysfunctional enough to do it twice. They can’t count on Trump, or the nationalist wave that carries him, to simply go away.
In that regard, it’s worth noting that while Trump’s critics are outraged at his undiplomatic behavior toward our NATO allies, he will pay no real political price for it. Trump is just doing what he promised his base he would do: unwinding U.S. commitments abroad to free up cash for Making America Great Again, while also sticking it to those liberal internationalist know-it-alls in Europe. If anyone saves NATO — and it’s an open question whether anyone can, or should — it almost certainly won’t be the American electorate.