As Donald Trump heads to Europe for a contentious NATO summit, followed by a trip to London and a meeting with Vladimir Putin, the head of the European Union has launched a preemptive defense of the transatlantic alliance. Citing Trump’s “almost daily” attacks, European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted on Tuesday: “US doesn’t have and won’t have a better ally than EU. We spend on defense much more than Russia and as much as China. I hope you have no doubt this is an investment in our security, which cannot be said with confidence about Russian & Chinese spending :-)”
This is a totally reasonably but completely hopeless stance when dealing with Trump. No argument that NATO leaders present this week is going to change Trump’s feelings about the alliance, and certainly no argument premised on the notion that Trump doesn’t fully understand the facts.
Trump’s main theme in Brussels this week is going to be that American allies in Europe don’t spend enough on defense and that the U.S. is essentially paying to protect them. He has a point: most NATO countries don’t meet the alliance’s 2 percent of GDP target for defense spending. Trump has muddied the waters by often implying that the issue is funding for NATO, which is a very inaccurate characterization of the situation and the 2 percent figure oversimplified the issue of burden sharing, but U.S. displeasure about the spending shortfall predates this administration.
As a NATO fact sheet released this week shows, most member states have been increasing their level of spending. Trump has taken credit for this, though most of these increases predated him. As Elisabeth Braw argues for Foreign Policy, Trump’s constant berating of allies actually makes it more difficult for governments in countries like Germany to increase their defense spending, since no government wants to look like it’s doing the bidding of an extremely unpopular American president.
It’s also worth asking what Trump would do if, by some chance, NATO allies did suddenly boost spending to above the 2 percent level. He tweeted this morning, “NATO countries must pay MORE, the United States must pay LESS. Very Unfair!” Does this mean that he thinks the U.S. could cut defense if the Europeans picked up the slack? This is a present who has expressed a desire for 32,000 nuclear weapons and a Space Force, despite military commanders telling him that they don’t need either of those things, and reportedly wanted to invade Venezuela. When it comes to military spending, frugality is only an issue for Trump when allies like Europe or South Korea are involved.
Trump and the European hawks who might normally applaud his calls for more spending also have very different ideas about why they should strengthen their militaries. For the Europeans, at a time when Russia is occupying part of the territory of Ukraine—a country that borders NATO—and is carrying out chemical weapons attacks on European soil, it makes sense to build a strong NATO as a deterrent.
But Trump, of course, has come close to supporting the Crimean occupation and, rather than seeing Russia as a threat to its Eastern European neighbors, he’s expressed the belief that the alliance could embolden these countries to get “frisky” with Russia.
Trump’s problem with our European allies has less to do with defense budgets than with his inability to see the point of the alliance. This was made more than clear at last year’s summit when he declined to endorse Article 5, the organization’s mutual defense clause. The president has a distaste for formal alliances like NATO and multilateral groupings like the EU, preferring to base his foreign policy on cutting one-off deals and building personal relationships with other heads of state—“getting along” as he often describes his relationship with leaders like Putin. He has a reflexive sympathy for Russia’s foreign policy goals and a reflexive distaste for European leaders’ high-minded talk of mutual benefit and a rules-based international order. The president described NATO as “obsolete” during his campaign, and while he subsequently backed away from the characterization a bit, it’s still probably the best indication of his thinking.
This isn’t a misconception on Trump’s part that can be corrected. It’s his worldview. And European leaders should be under no illusions that they’re going to change it.