War Stories

Escape From Brussels

To save their summit, NATO leaders had to let Trump think he’d won something.

President Donald Trump gestures as he addresses a press conference at the NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday.
President Donald Trump gestures as he addresses a press conference at the NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

This week’s NATO summit ended Thursday on a positive note, but only after the allied leaders soothed President Trump’s ego, letting him believe—in at least one case, telling him explicitly—that they were spending more on defense as a result of his pressure and leadership.

And so, after a very shaky start that found him threatening to pull the U.S. out of the alliance if its members didn’t pay what they owed, Trump held an impromptu news conference at which he congratulated his colleagues for “stepping up,” boasted that “everybody in the room thanked me” for prodding them onward, and proclaimed his “very strong” commitment to their security.

In reality, the summit produced no real changes in NATO’s policy or spending. That was fine, as most of the allies—as well as many U.S. officials—were hoping, at best, to avoid a catastrophe. In that sense, mission accomplished.

However, the essence of any security alliance is trust: the belief that its members will rally to the common defense in the event of an attack. And on that score, Trump’s harsh impetuousness, his clear hostility toward America’s oldest allies, and his indifference toward crucial facts, not least the dangers posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin—all kept the allies in a state of perpetual jitters.

His news conference confirmed both sides of this picture. The allies succeeded in making Trump feel that NATO’s progress was his doing alone—and therefore, kept him bound to NATO for a while longer. Yet, because of how easy it was to sway his thinking, they couldn’t help but wonder how pliable he might be at the hands of others, not least Putin, who will meet him on Monday.

Certainly, Trump made many false statements at the news conference. It’s unclear whether he knows they were false.

His main claim, repeated over and over, was that the NATO members agreed to spend more money on defense, “like they never have before,” “to levels they’ve never thought of before.” This boost in spending, he added, “started last year.” Before he became president, “the numbers”—their defense budgets—“were going down,” but “now the numbers were going up like a rocket ship.” And at this summit, he added, they didn’t just say they’d vaguely try to devote 2 percent of their GDP to defense; they “committed” to doing so—“that’s very different”—and they were doing this at a “faster clip” than before.

All of these remarks are false.

First, official NATO data clearly show that the current rise in spending began in 2014—that is, while Barack Obama was still president—mainly in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its incursions into eastern Ukraine, and its threats against the Baltic States. The spending continued to rise in 2015, 2016, and 2017—Trump’s first year in office. Spending was not going down before he entered the White House, nor has it shot up like a rocket since.

Second, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters on Thursday that, contrary to Trump’s claims, the allies had agreed to no further increases in defense spending at this year’s summit. The “Brussels Summit Declaration,” the official statement that came out of this week’s summit, backs up Macron. The key passage reads as follows:

We reaffirm our unwavering commitment to all aspects of the Defence Investment Pledge agreed at the 2014 Wales Summit, and to submit credible national plans on its implementation, including the spending guidelines for 2024.

As Macron said, there was no agreement either to boost spending beyond what was agreed four years ago or to accelerate the schedule.

Trump told other puzzlers. He said the United States pays 90 percent of NATO’s costs, when the real figure is 67 percent. He said the United States spends 4.2 percent of its GDP on defense, when it actually spends 3.5 percent. He said NATO is “much stronger than it was two days ago,” which is simply absurd. He even said Germany has increased its defense spending “very substantially”—a welcome backpedaling to his harsh criticism of Germany on Wednesday, but still not true: Germany has increased its spending only slightly.

Finally, he couldn’t help boasting, as he does at nearly every public forum, that he won 306 Electoral College votes in the 2016 election (even though he won 304), though this time he added a new fact: that his win in Wisconsin was a special triumph in that it was the only state Ronald Reagan lost in 1984. (Actually, Trump was wrong: Reagan did win Wisconsin that year.)

Still, at the end of his 20-minute banter with the press, he said something that must have made the allies and some of his own officials sigh in relief. Asked if he regarded Putin as a security threat, Trump replied, “Hey, I don’t want him to be, and I guess that’s why we have NATO.”

Then he boasted, out of nowhere, that the American stock market had gained $8 trillion in value since he came to the White House. Actually, it’s up $6.5 trillion, but who’s counting?