No, Mr. President, NATO is not “worse than NAFTA” and Russian President Vladimir Putin is not “fine.”
Those two errant characterizations, the first said to ostensible allies at the recent G-7 Summit in Quebec and the second bellowed at a rally in Montana, provide rhetorical backdrop to President Donald Trump’s approach to America’s Western allies and an adversary, Russia, that threatens NATO nations.
This threat is at a post-Cold-War high, and Putin shows no signs of tempering electoral tampering in the U.S. and Europe or mitigating military provocations that could spiral into catastrophe.
A strong NATO is essential — now more than ever. Which is why Trump is right in calling for all allies to meet the NATO target of spending at least 2 percent of their nation’s gross domestic product on defense.
Former President Barack Obama made the same call. And in fact during Obama’s tenure, at the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, allies set an objective to reach the goal within a decade. But while Obama deployed diplomatic means to convince countries to meet their obligations, Trump has been characteristically blunt in sharply worded letters to leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and several others in the 29-nation pact.
Every alliance member must strive to contribute commensurately. In truth, they’re making significant strides toward that goal, according to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who wrote in a Wall Street Journal commentary that in 2017 “NATO allies boosted their defense spending by a combined 5.2 percent, the biggest increase, in real terms, in a quarter of a century. Now 2018 will be the fourth consecutive year of rising spending.”
Trump’s ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, backed up the claim, telling reporters before this year’s summit: “Every one of our allies — 100 percent — are increasing defense spending.”
The ambassador added that the theme of the summit is “going to be NATO’s strength and unity.” She should have made that strength through unity — and pressed the president to not weaken that essential resolve by continuing to denigrate alliance partners.
Unity is especially key right now, shortly before the president is to meet Putin in Helsinki, a meeting Trump regrettably suggested, before jetting off, might “be the easiest of them all.” That unfortunate, unwise blurt might delight the Russian autocrat but discourage democratically elected leaders willing to send their nation’s troops to defend America, as they did on the only occasion when NATO’s collective defense Article 5 was invoked: by the U.S., right after 9/11.
The summit’s “stakes are high and that’s partly self-inflicted,” Mark Simakovsky, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told an editorial writer. “[Trump’s] goal is to shine a negative spotlight on an alliance not doing enough both for the United States and for its own security. In a way, President Trump could highlight at the summit some of the positives that NATO has been able to achieve in terms of increased defense spending and increased unity to deal with threats like Russia.”
Trump should indeed emphasize the positive and present a united, energized alliance to Putin, whose menace must be met with resolve.