by Mitchell Plitnick
Like many other US citizens, I get very nervous every time Donald Trump goes to meet with foreign leaders. Whether they are friend, foe, competitor, or ally, it seems almost inevitable that Trump will find a creative way to come up with a negative result from the meeting.
His current trip hasn’t disappointed. He started by berating NATO allies and has now moved on to stirring an already boiling pot of political turmoil in the United Kingdom. It seems a good moment to review the trip before the really scary part—the meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin—commences.
Trump’s performance at the NATO summit struck some familiar chords. He kicked things off by berating NATO allies, claiming that they are “not paying their fair share.” He also said that “Germany is totally controlled by Russia because they will be getting from 60% to 70% of their energy from Russia and a new pipeline.” Let’s start there.
It will come as no surprise that the accusation is ridiculous. In no way does Russia “control” Germany. Russia does supply between 50% and 75% of Germany’s natural gas, but natural gas accounts for less than 20% of Germany’s energy use. That’s hardly control.
Moreover, the new $11.1 billion gas pipeline from Russia to Germany is entirely a private enterprise, not one euro coming from public funds.
There’s also the remarkable insensitivity of Trump’s comment. Sure, such things have become routine from Trump, but let’s recall that, no so long ago, half of Germany was under Russian, more specifically Soviet, control. German Chancellor Angela Merkel lived in East Germany from the time she was three months old until the Berlin Wall fell. Although she lived a relatively privileged life during those years, such accusations are awkward and quite possibly offensive to Merkel or other Germans.
The NATO Payments
Trump’s repeated criticism of NATO countries’ military expenditures is not totally without merit. But as with much of what Trump says, the grain of truth is buried under a huge pile of lies and half-truths.
NATO is funded by the member states, and all countries have contributed their share. The US funds some 22% of NATO’s budget, and payments for NATO’s various budgets—about $2.6 billion for 2018—are based on each country’s GDP. All NATO countries are up to date on those payments.
What Trump is talking about is a commitment to spend a certain percentage of each member’s GDP on their own militaries. He didn’t invent the issue. It has been around for some time, and in 2014 President Barack Obama—in an effort to increase multilateralism, a strategy anathema to Trump—made the case that the rise of the Islamic State and the Russian invasion of Crimea showed that US allies needed to raise their defense budgets. Whatever one thinks of Obama’s argument—and it’s fair to debate it—NATO allies committed to raising their spending on defense to 2% of their GDP by 2024.
This spending increase is not a contribution to NATO, much less any sort of payment to the United States. Any shortfall in defense spending is not absorbed or otherwise picked up by the US. This applies to each country’s own defense budget. And, despite Trump’s tantrums, the 2014 pledge remains unchanged. From all indications, other countries simply reaffirmed their commitment to it.
Trump’s call for an increase in the target from 2% of GDP to 4% was laughable. The US in 2017 spent 3.57% of its GDP on defense. As recently as last month, US military spending was greater than the next 11 countries combined, but Trump was demanding that others pay a significantly higher percentage of their own GDP than the US does.
Trump left the NATO summit saying that he had won new commitments. He didn’t. There was no new commitment to increase spending, and there had already been considerable increases in the spending from many countries. Trump laid his real motives bare when he used his press conference to make a sales pitch for US arms manufacturers, saying that he hopes NATO members will use their increased military expenditures to buy American equipment, which he described as “so much better than anybody else’s.”
There are good arguments for NATO’s continued existence and for its obsolescence. But the discussion here is about how the US deals with its allies, and that issue became even more worrisome after this summit. There is no doubt that Europe still needs the US. But given all of Trump’s bullying, perhaps European countries aren’t already trying to find alternatives to their dependence on the US market and the US military. As Merkel said last year, the US has shown that it cannot be counted on as an ally. Trump has repeatedly reinforced that perception.
On To The UK
In England, Trump knew he was going to face hostility. So, showing the courage he has routinely displayed, he avoided London as much as he could, stating childishly, “I used to love London as a city. I haven’t been there in a long time. But when they make you feel unwelcome, why would I stay there?”
But the real bombshell was coming. With the British government reeling from the resignation of Brexit leaders David Davis and Boris Johnson, Trump decided to turn up the heat. He told the UK paper The Sun, “I would have done [Brexit] much differently. I actually told Theresa May how to do it but she didn’t agree, she didn’t listen to me. She wanted to go a different route. I would actually say that she probably went the opposite way. And that is fine. She should negotiate the best way she knows how. But it is too bad what is going on.”
Trump went on to say that now former Foreign Secretary Johnson would “make a great prime minister.” Trump also strongly implied that the current version of Brexit could mean the end of the potential US-UK bilateral trade agreement. He walked that and his other comments back the next day at a joint press conference with May, alleging that his own interview was “fake news.” But the damage was done.
The turmoil in the UK has already caused considerable political damage, could bring down Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, and threatens to further divide an already split country. May was never an enthusiastic supporter of Brexit, and the way she has handled the issue since she took over for the anti-Brexit conservative, David Cameron, is open to criticism.
But the decision to leave the European Union was, to say the least, hasty and poorly thought out. A significant minority favors a “hard Brexit” that completely terminates the connection with the rest of Europe. With the Brexit decision made, however, those who opposed it are joined by those who favor a “soft Brexit,” which would maintain some connection with the EU.
This means it is virtually impossible to come up with a plan that can win a sufficient majority in Parliament to be adopted. And then, whatever the UK comes up with must still be negotiated with the EU. It’s an impossible situation, and the deadline approaches.
That’s the bonfire that Trump felt the need to throw gasoline on. So much for that “special relationship.”
And, just to wrap up his little trip, he fired one last salvo at Europe and the UK. “I think allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad. I think you’re losing your culture. Look around. You go through certain areas that didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago.”
The extreme nationalism that is engulfing Europe and that, incidentally, also led to the victory of the Brexit referendum, is a Trump specialty. He didn’t invent it, but in just 18 months, he’s raised it from a large wave to a global tsunami. The president of the United States has spent the week undermining allies from England to Germany to Montenegro. And soon, he’ll top it off by meeting in secret with Vladimir Putin.
What could possibly go wrong?