In Donald Trump’s parallel universe
On July 11-12, the leaders of 29 member states of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) met for a summit in Brussels, the capital of Belgium. During the plenary session of the summit, President Donald Trump suddenly called on fellow alliance members to spend 4 percent of GDP on defence, rather than the agreed-upon 2 percent. He claimed that the other NATO countries owe the US “a tremendous amount of money,” arguing that the US is “paying a lot of money to protect” other countries in exchange for nothing. Shortly thereafter, he raised the prospect of a bilateral meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel over German cars, migration and Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the two had a “good relationship.” The conflicting messages from Trump, sent within the span of just one day, don’t resemble anything close to normal diplomatic discourse from a US president.
Eighteen months into his presidency, Donald Trump keeps setting geopolitical fires, and Europe keeps getting burned. NATO’s Brussels summit was no different. But why is Europe so consistently a target of Trump’s ire? Let us count the ways.
Holding him back
In Trump’s worldview, what holds the United States back from getting what it – more rightly, President Trump – wants is not the country’s enemies but its allies. Enemies can be bargained with; allies apparently believe that they’re entitled to concessions.
Aside from Democrats back home, Europeans are the ones most vocal against Trump following through on his natural impulses. Don’t pull out of the Paris Agreement. Don’t leave the Iran Nuclear Deal. Don’t start trade wars.
Telling Trump not to do something is the closest people have come to figuring out how to get the mercurial Trump to do anything; the Europeans have yet to catch on.
In NATO, Trump has found an international organization where the US arguably is providing more than its fair share. NATO countries agreed in 2014 that each would spend 2 percent of GDP on defence by 2024; so far, only five of NATO’s 29 members have met that target.
The US currently spends 3.57 percent, by far the most of any member state. Further, given the US’s unquestioned military superiority (the US spends more on defence than the next seven countries combined), there is no NATO without the US.
More than any other multilateral organization in the world today, NATO is defined by the US presence. That gives Trump leverage. And Trump is a man who really understands leverage.
Caring about headline wins
“I think NATO is much stronger now than it was two days ago,” Trump announced at the summit’s concluding press conference. That sound bite alone made Trump’s trip to Brussels worth it, and he was able to say it because he held Europe’s feet to the fire by demanding other NATO members pay up. There are no headline wins in showing up to Brussels to keep a 70-year old alliance humming along.
NATO-bashing costs nothing
Forty-eight percent of Americans say NATO doesn’t do enough to solve the world’s problems; another 30 percent say it does too little. Hitting NATO costs Trump very little political capital, and being friends with Europe is as established as things get for US politicians. Hitting out at Brussels only enhances his anti-establishment credentials.
Europe won’t hit back
One of the few other constants of Trump’s foreign policy is his admiration for strongmen, politicians that make unilateral decisions and hit back hard.
While a trade war seems to be building between the US and China, Trump seems keen on keeping things with Chinese President Xi Jinping – who he admires – on an even keel out of respect for him and what he’s done in China.
Trump knows that pushing Xi too far might provoke a backlash against the US Trump insults German Chancellor Angela Merkel…and nothing really happens. Part of that has to do with Merkel’s placid disposition; part of it has to do with the EU structures and processes that bind the hands of European leaders.
Despite its economic heft, Europe is a much safer target than countries with leaders who have freedom to punch back hard.
From Brussels with love
For whatever reasons, Trump has shown himself to be much more inclined toward Russia’s geopolitical ambitions and priorities.
Before leaving for his European trip, Trump declared that his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin would be the easiest of his overseas meetings. Based off the performance he delivered in Brussels, he’s probably right about that.
As the NATO summit concluded, European politicians were left facing two unappealing options – buckle to US demands like the ones Trump made at the NATO summit and feel the wrath of voters for appearing to capitulate, or stand against Trump, feel the economic and security repercussions of those decisions and feel the wrath of voters.
As European Council president Donald Tusk bitterly quipped a couple of months ago: “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”
Unfortunately, Europe does.
All you need to know about NATO
The precursor to NATO was a purely European affair. The Treaty of Brussels on mutual defence was signed on March 17, 1948, between Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France and the United Kingdom. It was mainly intended to counter the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union. The Korean War also stoked fears that the Russians might push through Europe to the Atlantic Coast.
Founding of the Bloc
Talks on an alliance that spanned the Atlantic began in 1948 and the foundations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were officially laid down on 4 April 1949 with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, more popularly known as the Washington Treaty, in Washington, DC, by 12 nations.
The Washington Treaty derives its authority from Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which reaffirms the inherent right of independent states to individual or collective defence.
The Treaty is short – containing only 14 articles – and provides for in-built flexibility on all fronts. Collective defence is at the heart of the Treaty and is enshrined in Article 5. It commits members to protect each other and sets a spirit of solidarity within the Alliance.
Membership: There are currently 29 member states of NATO. Besides the 12 founding nations, following countries has also joined NATO as member:
Greece (1952); Turkey (1952); Germany (1955); Spain (1982); Czech Republic (1999); Hungary (1999); Poland (1999); Bulgaria (2004); Estonia (2004); Latvia (2004); Lithuania (2004); Romania (2004); Slovakia (2004); Slovenia (2004); Albania (2009); Croatia (2009); and Montenegro (2017).
Aims and Objectives
The effective aim of NATO is to keep its members safe by deterring attack, and to bind the US to this collective defence. The organization’s charter states that the signing parties will “seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area,” and will “unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security.”
Under Article 5 of the Treaty, an armed attack from outside the alliance on any NATO member state would be considered an attack against all NATO allies. The alliance members are sworn to help the party being attacked. NATO has only invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty once, after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US.
Unlike the Treaty of Brussels, assistance to another NATO ally would not necessarily have to be by military means, but it is still assumed that any response would involve use of force. To make joint action easier, national militaries seek to use the same procedures and equipment, and carry out joint exercises.
Who runs things?
Decisions are made by the North Atlantic Council, which has permanent representatives from each of the member countries. Its membership can also be composed of ministers of state or even heads of government.
Meetings are chaired by the Secretary General of NATO – the top international civil servant who is in charge of international civilian staff. The Secretary General is chosen by consensus among member states, usually through informal diplomatic channels.
Because the top military officer of NATO, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), is always an American, the Secretary General has traditionally been a European. The Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe is usually British, although three Germans have also served in the role.
There is direct and indirect funding.
1. Direct funding pays for things that are not the responsibility of any one individual country, such as NATO-wide air defence or command and control apparatus. This is paid for according to a cost share formula based on the Gross National Income of each country and represents a small portion of each country’s defence spending.
2. Indirect funding pays for exercises and military operations. Each country pays the cost itself and the level of commitment is often assessed on the defence spending of each country. In 2006, NATO members agreed to commit two percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to defence spending.
Most countries have not done this. Outside the US, only Britain, Greece, Estonia and Poland spend above the two-percent guideline.
While the combined non-US members have a greater GDP than the US, America spends more than twice as much as they do on its military. The imbalance increased all the more after the 2001 terror attacks on the US, when Washington hiked up its defence spending.
Other Basic Information
Secretary General: Jens Stoltenberg (Former Prime Minister of Norway)
Headquarters: Brussels, Belgium
Motto: “animus in consulendo liber” (“in discussion a free mind” or “man’s mind ranges unrestrained in counsel.”
Did You know?
On July 25, 1950, the first meeting of NATO Council Deputies was held in London where US Ambassador Charles M. Spofford is elected permanent chairman.
General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed its first supreme allied commander on December 19, 1950.
Lord Ismay was the first secretary general of NATO.
NATO established its provisional headquarters in Paris at the Palais de Chaillot on April 16, 1952.