Veni, vidi, vici. That’s what Trump would have tweeted en route to a weekend of golf at his courses in Scotland had he not forgotten his high school Latin. Traditional diplomat Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, says “The president treated the NATO allies almost with contempt.” Delete “almost” and Burns has it right. But the tone of Trump’s tweets and comments are best understood as the exasperation of this American president who wants to succeed where his predecessors failed—ending that part of the post-World War II settlement that disadvantages America. And if that means abandoning traditional diplomacy in favour of ill-concealed contempt, so be it.
Start with NATO. Other than the United States, only 3 of the 29 NATO members (Estonia, Greece, the United Kingdom) spend 2 percent of their GDP (or a bit more) on defense. Germany, a rich country, manages to find only 1.22 percent that it does not need for its generous welfare state. Worse still: Chancellor Angela Merkel is willing to raise that figure to only 1.5 percent, and that not until 2024. The 2 percent promised by all members for 2025 will be reached, in Germany’s case, only at a distant, unspecified date yet to be determined. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, drily remarked that 1.5 percent is not 2 percent, while Trump prefers “IMMEDIATELY” to a date that is in fact “never.” But Merkel’s coalition relies on the continued support of the Social Democrats (SDP), who are opposed to the 2 percent target, preferring as they do to use the money to extend the welfare state. Which leaves Trump in a bit of a spot should he ease the pressure on Germany to meet its commitment: how to explain to American taxpayers that it is in their interest to spend money to defend a country that refuses to defend itself. Indeed, one that is strengthening the finances of the country that poses the greatest threat to NATO members.
Trump differs from his predecessors. He is “a phenomenon that foreign countries haven’t seen,” as Henry Kissinger describes him. First, he is unpredictable, a feature on which terrorists rely for their effectiveness. It was safe for Obama’s fellow leaders to rely on their favorite American president not to do anything if they would only listen politely to his elegant prose and then go about ignoring him. But Trump, as he proved by ratcheting up his trade war, means what he says—mostly.
Second, the president believes in what former British Prime Minister Tony Blair called “joined-up policy making and delivery.” Security, trade, energy policy, and, of course, the degree of respect shown him, personally, are all related. In the case of Germany, the charge sheet includes Merkel’s NATO cash shortfall; her dangerous reliance on Russia for a large portion of her country’s energy supply; and her willingness to shovel billions into Vladimir Putin’s sanctions-depleted treasury. In the case of the EU, some members are not only short-changing NATO, burdening American taxpayers, but erecting barriers to American imports, burdening American consumers.
Trump, who insists he persuaded Kim Jong-un to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, also claims that his NATO tactics are working. He claims that members have agreed to increase their previously-set contributions. But Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte says he has no intention of increasing military spending. Neither does Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who has “recommitted” to his existing spend. French president Emmanuel Macron has merely “reaffirmed a credible budget strategy that meets our needs.” Not exactly a bankable promise. Besides, when the bills come due in 2024, most of these leaders will be traveling the world flogging their memoirs.