Having been showered with compliments in Saudi Arabia and Israel, Donald Trump’s visit to Europe where he has met the US’s formal allies in the NATO and G7 formats, have gone unhappily.
Despite efforts on both sides to patch things up, it is impossible to avoid the sense that Trump and his erstwhile “allies” don’t like each other very much. Not only has Trump had uncomfortable meetings with Merkel and Macron, and not only did his shoving aside the Prime Minister of Montenegro look like a snub, but I doubt that Trump himself realises how irritated most of his European allies are by his constant calls that they increase their defence spending.
These calls Trump made again during the summit and in blunt language and at extraordinary length
The NATO of the future must include a great focus on terrorism and immigration, as well as threats from Russia and on NATO’s eastern and southern borders. These grave security concerns are the same reason that I have been very, very direct with Secretary Stoltenberg and members of the Alliance in saying that NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations, for 23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense.
This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States. And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years. Over the last eight years, the United States spent more on defense than all other NATO countries combined. If all NATO members had spent just 2 percent of their GDP on defense last year, we would have had another $119 billion for our collective defense and for the financing of additional NATO reserves.
We should recognize that with these chronic underpayments and growing threats, even 2 percent of GDP is insufficient to close the gaps in modernizing, readiness, and the size of forces. We have to make up for the many years lost. Two percent is the bare minimum for confronting today’s very real and very vicious threats. If NATO countries made their full and complete contributions, then NATO would be even stronger than it is today, especially from the threat of terrorism.
There is no doubt that Trump himself sincerely believes all this, and doubtless from his point it is obvious that it is simply unfair for the US to pay such a disproportionate amount of the Western alliance’s defence burden.
However the US’s NATO allies will have noticed that these words contain no reciprocal pledge from the US to ‘defend’ them come what may, and they are bound to see Trump’s calls for them to increase defence spending as a form of blackmail, implicitly threatening them that unless they increase their defence spending the US will stop ‘defending’ them.
A point which few Americans understand is that some European states – Germany being a case in point – anyway deliberately underspend on defence in the belief that if they spent more on defence the US might one day conclude that they no longer need to be “defended” by it. For these states Trump’s calls that they spend more on defence sets this all on its head, calling their bluff in a way they particularly dislike. It does not help that in Germany’s case Trump during their summit made further comments which all but accused Germany of taking the US for a ride on trade.
Beyond that there is the never expressed but always present doubt about what NATO is really for.
The USSR – the ostensible threat from which NATO was supposedly set up to defend Europe from – no longer exists, which begs the question of what NATO is really for, and from whom or what the NATO is actually “defending” Europe from, and what the purpose of all this extra spending really is. By constantly harping on the subject Trump threatens to strip away the illusion that NATO is actually “defending” anyone from anything, and makes NATO look more like what it really is, which is a gigantic protection racket.
Needless to say that is not something the European members of NATO like to be reminded of.
The simple fact is that since the end of the Cold War the glue that has held the Western alliance together has become overtly ideological, with the members of the alliance seeing themselves as joint partners in an overtly ideological neoliberal enterprise. When the leader of what is by far the most powerful state within NATO makes it perfectly clear that he has no belief in that enterprise, and insists on talking about money instead, that inevitably makes the others unhappy.
That more than anything else explains the unhappy mood music of this summit, which contrasts so strikingly with Trump’s far happier interactions with President Xi Jinping of China and Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia.
This is a situation which in the history of the Western alliance has never existed before – of a US President interacting more happily with the alliance’s “enemies” than with its members. Moreover so long as Donald Trump remains US President it is difficult to see how it can change.