President Donald Trump goes to Brussels this week for the latest NATO summit, and the question everyone seems to be asking is: How much harm will Trump do to the alliance that has largely kept the peace in Europe for the last 70 years, in addition to providing security to the United States? Will he merely damage it, or destroy it altogether?
He may not be able to do the latter, but as the New York Times says, in the Trump era these meetings “have become anxiety-producing confrontations where the main object is to avoid long-term damage to the alliance.” It seems that nearly every time our president gets together with our allies, he does what he can to offend and insult them, as though he had no higher goal than undermining the political, economic, and military systems of cooperation that have defined the western world in the decades since World War II.
One way to look at these episodes is that undermining western alliances is exactly what Vladimir Putin wants, and that’s why Trump does it. But while it’s true that Putin couldn’t be happier if our alliances are weakened, that isn’t the real reason. This is about Donald Trump’s fundamental view of the world.
For Trump, there is quite literally no such thing as an alliance, in the sense of a mutually beneficial relationship between countries of shared values and goals. There may be some sort of temporary agreement, but it’s only worth participating in if you’ve actually convinced the other parties to give more than they get.
This perspective obviously has its roots in Trump’s career as a businessman, but not all businesspeople think this way. Everything we know about Trump’s career - including his own words - makes clear not only that he views life as a series of “deals,” but that deals are competitions. Most importantly, if you didn’t turn the other person into a sucker, that means you’re the sucker.
That’s why Trump always talks about any international relationship, whether it’s through trade or alliances or common efforts to reduce climate change, as one in which somebody got taken to the cleaners and it was probably us. Not only that, if we didn’t scam the other side, that means “they’re laughing at us,” something Trump repeats endlessly (I could say that suggests a deep insecurity, but let’s not go there).
If every relationship is zero-sum, in which there has to be a winner and a loser and one’s highest goal is coming out the winner, an alliance like NATO simply makes no sense. And to Trump, it doesn’t. “NATO is as bad as NAFTA,” he told our allies at the G7 meeting last month, linking the alliance to a trade agreement he believes resulted in the U.S. being suckered. Here’s what The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan and Greg Jaffe reported Monday:
“Recently, Trump suggested to aides that he might cut U.S. force levels in Europe if the allies do not boost spending. “They kill us with NATO,” Trump said last week at a speech in Montana. “They kill us.” He then called for better relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who many of the NATO allies see as their greatest threat.
“Those statements echoed across Europe ahead of the NATO summit and set the stage for [Defense Secretary James] Mattis, who will have to decide how much goodwill he is willing to risk with the president as he calms allies who are beginning to wonder whether the United States is still committed to their collective defense.”
The answer to their question is that while the United States is still committed to collective defense, the president of the United States isn’t.
Now it should be said that other presidents have complained in the past that NATO countries were not all meeting their agreed-upon goals for military spending (all members are supposed to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense), but Trump discusses that issue in a very particular way. He could chide them for slacking off or not pulling their weight, but instead he talks about it as though there is a competition that the Europeans have won and we’ve lost because they scammed us. “They kill us,” he says. Or as he said in reference to Germany buying natural gas from Russia, “They want to protect against Russia and yet they pay billions of dollars to Russia, and we’re the schmucks paying for the whole thing.”
He also often talks as though shortfalls in European military spending are money that is owed to the United States and must be paid up. The Wall Street Journal reports that the first time Trump met German chancellor Angela Merkel, he told her, “You owe me one trillion dollars,” an apparent reference to German defense spending.
So what exactly is the world Donald Trump envisions? It isn’t one of strong alliances that advance common interests, including ours. It’s one in which everyone is alone and everyone is out for themselves. If we can convince some other countries to join with us in what they think is a cooperative effort but is actually one in which we’re scamming them, then that’s great. But otherwise, they can take a hike.
Paul Waldman is a columnist with The Washington Post.