WASHINGTON ― The elected leaders of other Western democracies in Brussels on Wednesday.
The world’s most influential authoritarian in Helsinki the following Monday.
Normally an American president would enjoy warm relations at the first meeting and get a frostier reception at the second. But as the United States, its traditional allies and the rest of the world have learned over the past 18 months, Donald Trump is not a normal president ― which is raising concerns that he will alienate NATO members and then cozy up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
“Our allies support the United States. Our adversaries are trying to undercut us. I don’t know how to turn that around for him,” said Heather Conley, who served in the State Department under President George W. Bush and now runs the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That’s why we’re so nervous about the summit.”
Trump has already offered hints about his likely approach. Last month, after refusing to sign onto a joint statement from other leaders of industrialized economies at the G-7 summit, Trump fired off letters to a number of NATO nations complaining that they were not spending enough on their militaries.
It is a theme Trump has hammered on for years: that the rest of the world takes advantage of the United States through alliances and trade agreements skewed in their favor. Many times, Trump has falsely claimed that other NATO members are not paying “what they owe” to NATO and that their dereliction puts an unfair burden on U.S. taxpayers ― which is a fundamental misrepresentation of how the treaty organization works.
“We’re the schmucks who pay for the whole thing,” Trump told supporters at a Montana rally Thursday. “We’re the piggy bank that everybody likes to rob. Allies. Friends. We protect them. NATO. Unfair,” he said to a gathering of Nevada Republicans in June.
In fact, while there are relatively modest dues that nations pay for NATO’s administration, the bulk of the costs lies in the members’ spending on their own militaries, which train together to prepare for joint operations.
Trump in his first meeting with NATO leaders last year famously failed to pledge his support for the alliance’s mutual defense clause. This came at the unveiling of a new NATO headquarters memorial to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States ― the only time that Article 5 of the alliance’s charter has ever been invoked. And that decision wound up putting thousands of NATO troops in Afghanistan for going on two decades.
The president’s public posturing is actually making it harder for these leaders to do what he wants them to do.Heather Conley, a former State Department official
In 2014, following the establishment of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” on the border of member nation Turkey and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO’s membership agreed that each country would spend at least 2 percent of its economy on defense within a 10-year time frame.
“No one pledged to get to 2 percent in a year or overnight,” said Doug Lute, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama. “They are, I would argue, making progress. All allies, across the board, have made real increases in defense spending ― $87 billion over four years is real money.”
Conley emphasized that these increases began years ago. “They made that commitment well before President Trump even announced his candidacy,” she said.
Further, leaders of those countries now face challenges in funneling more money to defense while coming under domestic pressure to stand up to Trump, Conley said. “The president’s public posturing is actually making it harder for these leaders to do what he wants them to do,” she noted.
Officials in Trump’s administration, meanwhile, have tried to downplay his attacks on NATO and overtures to Putin ― in the process sounding more like presidents of past decades than the man they work for in their embrace of Western Europe and skepticism about Russia.
In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Trump’s ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, laid out a litany of Russia’s transgressions in recent years. “Whether that is election meddling, malign activities throughout Europe, including the Balkans, the U.K. and Brexit, France and Italy, just to mention a few,” Huntsman said.
On the same call, Kay Bailey Hutchison, a former Republican senator from Texas and now the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said the United States intends to support the “membership aspirations” of both Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet states that have both been invaded by Putin’s Russia.
There is an old adage: ‘Be nice to people on your way up or they will hurt you on your way down.’ But that may seem too long-term for President Trump.Adam Thomson, a former British ambassador to NATO
The statements come in stark contrast to Trump’s own views. As a presidential candidate, he supported the Brexit movement that is now forcing the United Kingdom to leave the European Union trading bloc. More recently as president, Trump has reportedly said that Russia’s annexation of Crimea makes sense because most of the residents there speak Russian and has publicly pointed out that Russia continues to deny having interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Both the U.S. intelligence community and the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that not only did Russia interfere in the election, but it did so with the goal of helping Trump win.
In any event, Huntsman’s and Hutchison’s views do not appear to have had any influence over Trump’s statements about NATO and Russia, and it’s unclear how much sway they will have as Trump meets with fellow leaders at NATO headquarters in Belgium or in his one-on-one with Putin in Finland.
Whatever anybody else says, Adam Thomson, a former British ambassador to NATO, suspects Trump will continue doing exactly what he is doing.
“President Trump may not understand how NATO works and he certainly displays no love for alliances or multilateral diplomacy. But he probably understands that the burden-sharing debate plays well to his political base,” Thomson said. “He sees that his pressure is causing increased European defense spending or can be claimed to be doing so. So why not keep it up?”
Eventually, Trump’s approach could cause problems for him, Adamson added.
“There is an old adage: ‘Be nice to people on your way up or they will hurt you on your way down.’ But that may seem too long-term for President Trump and the United States to worry about.”