Cracks in an Age-Old Alliance: Gauging the Trump-NATO Summit

With the two-day summit in Brussels now in the rearview mirror, it is all but clear, that even close allies have lost their patience with the President of the United States, Donald Trump. Here is an insight by one of our editors into the changing, almost ancient, relationships of the United States of America.


Almost approaching 70 years — from the darkest days of the Cold War, through the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the two ends of the world at times minutes from a catastrophic nuclear disaster and the disintegration of the USSR — NATO has always been successful in guaranteeing the supremacy of the West and safeguarding its democratic ideals.

The summit made it vividly apparent that, if it serves his purpose, Donald Trump seems perfectly inclined to dismantle the alliance. This can prove to be a terrible idea. USA needs NATO, a strong, united alliance, with a common purpose and a powerful voice, now more than ever before.

The European Union is facing strains of supremacy struggles from the left and the right, the refugee crisis is growing everyday and Russia has been relentless in its torments, NATO has been the only single constant that has stood the test of time in these troubled waters. Among the many possible reasons for Trump’s ‘wrecking ball approach’ to the summit in Brussels, two stand out as most likely (and frankly erroneous) — policy and economics. Trump appears eager to put his own brand name on everything he is associated with, just as he has, for instance, on every real estate project he has developed. He denunciated NATO even before landing in Brussels — increasing the deception of an entire continent that has failed to carry the weight of its defence payments, relying instead on generosity by the US.

In the age of the blitzkrieg, NATO has created ground deterrents to prevent tanks of its Soviet-led counterparts from fanning out across Germany and into Europe. According to the alliance’s rules, all 29 members should be allocating 2% of their GDP to their military by 2024. When Trump assumed office in 2017, four nations had met the target; four more are on track to achieve this by the end of this year. Some countries have managed to carry their weight even without being able to meet this number. France, standing at about 1.7% has backed up American forces with its own troops from Afghanistan to Western Africa. Forces of NATO members have fought and died alongside American forces on almost every continent. Therefore it was all the more shocking when Trump dropped a bombshell by demanding that the amount be doubled to 4% of GDP; a demand that no NATO member can feasibly meet. While Trump’s complaints about the NATO budget have been almost a constant since the early days of his campaign, he aggravated this by berating Germany for being ‘totally controlled by Russia’ in reference to the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will bring large quantities of Russian natural gas to Germany.

It’s fair to expect that the other NATO members should spend more of their GDP on defence; and fair to expect, too, that they should reach the 2 percent benchmark sometime sooner than 2024. However, it isn’t fair to demand, as Trump does, that they reach the 2 percent mark by the end of this year and then increase it to 4 percent. Trump’s actions resonate an undertone of rank commercialism. Spending more on arms may mean more arms purchases from the US industry — more revenues — more American jobs. Simultaneously, easing back on gas imports from Russia could mean more imports of natural gas from American producers. Such a shift could even the trade imbalance that is a perpetual Trump complaint against Europe. There is no doubt that all these complaints aim to achieve just what he intends: the collapse of the liberal international order, both in its animated commitment to open societies as well as its essential international institutions.

Seen in this light, Trump’s wretched behaviour isn’t — or isn’t merely — the product of a defective personality. It’s the result of a willful ideology. For him, the upside is the substitution of a liberal order with an illiberal one, based on conceits about sovereignty, nationality, religion and ethnicity. These are the same conceits that Vladimir Putin has long made his own, which helps explain Trump’s affinity for his Russian counterpart. The key question is whether Trump’s bludgeoning of NATO will really strengthen or improve the alliance’s ability to stand up to a resurgent Russia.The chances are slim. It also explains his undisguised contempt for contemporary European democracy and his efforts to replace it with something more ‘Trumpian’: Xenophobic, protectionist and defiant. This is the Europe of Germany’s Gauland, France’s Marine Le Pen, Britain’s Nigel Farage, Hungary’s Orban, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. Note that the last three are already in power. All this must be gratifying to Trump’s sense of historical importance. For America, it’s a historical disaster. The United States can only lead a world that’s prepared to follow. But follow what? Not the rules of trade that America once set but now claims are rigged against it. Not the democratic ideals that America once embodied but now treats with disdain. This will only suit Americans for whom the idea of a free world always seemed like a distant abstraction. It will suit Europeans whose anti-Americanism predates Trump’s arrival by decades.

An America that stands for its own interests first also stands, and falls, alone. It’s fair that the US uses its leverage to negotiate more advantageous trade deals. It isn’t fair to insist on politically unsustainable trade concessions that the President knows other countries won’t make — in order to destroy these agreements permanently, while blaming the other side. Above all, it’s fair to prod and cajole and quarrel with our core allies — in private. But Trump is out to embarrass them in public, marking them as enemies. Donald Trump has spent his presidency trashing countries under the historically sordid banner of “America First.” Sadly, he has largely forgotten the central tenet of the art of any deal – or any alliance – that it is truly successful only when both sides feel good about one outcome. Trump seems to have decided sometime early in his career as a real estate developer, one who was even forced into multiple bankruptcies, that a deal is beneficial when its good only for him and when he has managed to ram it down the throat of an unwilling adversary.

NATO, however, is not a real estate venture to be bartered away on a whim. It is a central part of the way of life that most Western nations are still determined to preserve for themselves.