The Washington Post asks 'Will NATO survive Trump?' ahead of a summit with NATO leaders this week as bureaucrats in Brussels voice concern over his potentially disruptive 'America first' rhetoric, and as the president is set to meet with Vladimir Putin only days later in their first one-on-one meeting.
In a characteristically over-dramatic tone, WaPo answers concerning NATO leaders, "Now they’re worried about something bigger: a full crackup of the alliance, or at least such a weakening of Washington’s security commitments that NATO would emerge deeply damaged."
“It’s one thing if he goes to the G-7 and is rude to people,” a senior NATO diplomat told the Post while speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s another thing to derail NATO.”
Among the foremost driving concerns that might "derail NATO" is the possibility that Trump could seek to mend relations with Russia and deescalate tensions when he sits down with Putin for their July 16 meeting in Helsinki, Finland. According to the Post, "European leaders worry that Trump could bargain away their security in the name of better relations with the Kremlin."
This, after Trump continued his theme in recent remarks of NATO allies "freeloading" for not paying their dues and treating the US like "schmucks" and further that NATO is "as bad as NAFTA". Lately he's repeatedly berated other member states for not living up to a 2014 pledge to reach two percent of GDP on defense by 2024 — only three European countries have reached the mark. He's expected to urge other governments of the alliance to dramatically increase military spending and lower import tariffs.
“I’m going to tell NATO: You’ve got to start paying your bills. The United States is not going to take care of everything,” Trump confidently told a rally in Montana last week. “We are the schmucks that are paying for the whole thing,” and added: “They kill us on trade.”
U.S. officials have long touted that Washington spends 70 percent of its defense budget on NATO; however, European leaders dispute this, with one senior unnamed EU official telling Reuters "the number is more like 15 percent."
Last month Trump issued formal warnings in letters sent to leaders whose countries are not living up to their NATO defense spending pledges, saying that the US could cut them off while further questioning why Washington should spend money to protect nations it is running a trade deficit with, raising the issue of the potential for using this a bargaining chip in trade talks.
Statista: NATO's own figures show that the United States remains the defense hegemon within the organization. On the one hand, American defense spending has dropped compared to 2010, but Canada and NATO's European members taken together have not increased their spending in return until 2017.
The US president — widely acknowledged as the de facto leader of the nearly 70-year-old North Atlantic Treaty Organization — has NATO leaders further on edge for his unpredictable off the cuff style way of speaking and unrestrained approach to diplomacy.
In a line that CNN is listing among the "11 most dangerous things Donald Trump said" he explained last week: “Putin’s fine... He’s fine. We’re all fine. We’re people. Will I be prepared? Totally prepared. I’ve been preparing for this stuff my whole life.”
“Getting along with Russia, and getting along with China and getting along with other countries is a good thing,” he added, “not a bad thing.”
Of course, this has both CNN pundits and NATO diplomats in full panic mode, as Reuters notes: "Two senior NATO diplomats told Reuters they are prepared for a worst-case scenario that Trump would announce a freeze on U.S. military exercises or withdraw troops from the Baltics in a gesture to Putin."
Another NATO official told Reuters: “There is a better-than 50-50 chance that the president will disrupt the NATO summit, probably by complaining again that others aren’t carrying their fair share of the burden, and possibly by threatening to withdraw if they don’t step up on his terms.”
And separately, a diplomat from a NATO country told the AFP: "What Trump says will be decisive for the future of the alliance, but we do not know what he will say. It is a shadow that hangs like the sword of Damocles over the summit."
This follows last month's Group of Seven meeting in Canada ending on a contentious note in which Trump according to the Washington Post "fought with leaders of Washington’s closest allies, then withheld his signature from the bromide-filled declaration that comes out of such meetings as a matter of course."
NATO leaders fear such signs of "disunity" in Brussels would be a disastrous welcome gift to Putin, as one former NATO official and think tank pundit lamented to the Post:
“The biggest of the allies doesn’t just have a disagreement with us, but he actually seems willing to walk away,” said Tomas Valasek, a former Slovak ambassador to NATO who runs Carnegie Europe, a Brussels think tank. “Deterrence has already been broken.”
They are worried Moscow will just sit back and enjoy the show, reaping the spoils of a chaotic NATO summit when Putin negotiates days later with Trump.
But perhaps the best line to come out of all the recent media and diplomatic hand-wringing, which happens to aptly characterize Trump's approach to diplomacy is the following: "We used to roll our eyes at Trump’s policies but now we are seeing the craziness becoming strategic," a senior EU diplomat told Reuters. “We now have to seek out all kinds of partners to further our goals.”
If, as we noted previously, this involves NATO bureaucrats' worst nightmare coming true and peace breaks out between Russia and the West, then let more "craziness becoming strategic" prevail.