Trump’s disdain for Germany, NATO allies won’t help U.S.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pithy observation on Sunday that Europeans “really must take our fate into our own hands” following President Donald Trump’s first visit to Europe last week may prove a blip in history. Likewise, French President Emmanuel Macron’s description of his odd, intense handshake with Trump in Brussels as a successful demonstration he wouldn’t be intimidated by a U.S. leader he likened to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and the increasingly dictatorial Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be quickly forgotten. It’s important to remember that Trump’s top foreign policy and national security posts are held by people with traditional views about the value of America’s age-old allies.
But it is also possible that Merkel’s comment may mark the beginning of the unraveling of the largest, most powerful and most successful alliance in world history: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, formed in 1949 by the United States, Canada and 10 European nations in recognition of the threat they jointly faced from the Soviet Union. Now 28 nations strong, NATO can point to a long list of accomplishments: mostly successfully containing Moscow’s trouble-making; ending the deadly Balkan wars in the 1990s; working jointly to address international threats; and bringing stability and prosperity to North America and to much of Europe, a continent ravaged twice in the span of 30 years by world wars.
Yes, the president is correct when he says most other members of NATO don’t spend enough on their own defense and many are free riders on U.S. military might. Previous presidents have said as much for decades. But NATO is no parasite. The United States has benefited immensely from the sturdy security it has brought to the world. Soldiers from NATO member nations have been instrumental in various U.S.-led military actions. All NATO nations are partners in the U.S-led coalition against the Islamic State. And the mutual-defense pact that was key to NATO’s founding remains crucial to U.S. interests.
“NATO essentially says to every American: You won’t have to fight alone,” U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute told The New Yorker last year. “That gives America the great confidence that it will always be able to operate in a multinational setting with diverse allies that not only bring military capacity but also political weight to whatever security challenge it faces.”
This is not a view that Trump seems to grasp. In linking his grievances over NATO members’ military spending to his grievances over the U.S. trade deficit with Germany — as he did broadly on the campaign trail and as he did again last week bluntly to Merkel — the president casts U.S. relationships with other nations as zero-sum games in which there are only winners and losers. In tweeting complaints about Germany on Tuesday in apparent response to Merkel’s questions about U.S. reliability, Trump casts the U.S. not as the world’s policeman but as its most temperamental bully.
In December, The Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote that Trump’s unpredictability could at times benefit the U.S. in its dealings with other nations. That may be true with U.S. adversaries like Iran and North Korea, if it is linked to a strategic vision. Yet it is hard to fathom how the president’s unpredictability helps with America’s traditional allies. This is especially so when the trait seems driven not by strategy but by vengeful whim — and by a desire to always have the last word.
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