President Trump’s highly anticipated transatlantic voyage has been full of mixed messages and signals. This is particularly so in light of his last international trip to the G7 summit in Canada and the North Korea summit in Singapore, where his outburst at America’s usual allies and his cordial meeting with Kim Jung-un caught many by surprise. Perhaps because of this, expectations for this trip have been lowered.
Yet his itinerary itself was packed with high-drama by design. It started with a NATO summit meant to show transatlantic solidarity despite the American president’s repeated complaints and Twitter outbursts in advance of his Brussels visit. He then stopped in England, where the implosion of Prime Minister Theresa May’s government under the weight of her Brexit decision has only been magnified by Trump’s “I told you so” attitude. Finally, Trump will have perhaps his most consequential bilateral visit with Russian President Putin in Helsinki, Finland. Like last time, most of the focus has been on this summit with a traditional US adversary and not the one with traditional allies. Trump, however, has proven that he likes to flip the script, and so he did at the NATO summit as well.
In classic Trump-style, the president created high-drama over NATO’s military spending, making the alliance’s commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on the military the focus of his ire. He then demanded allies step up spending to 4 percent, an almost impossible number even for the United States. As an “Art of the Deal” negotiating tactic, there might be merit. However, the debate now is just how much damage has been done to the security bedrock of post-World War II international order and to America’s alliance with those who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the US from Korea to Afghanistan.
Many critics are already saying the sky is falling, while others describe the summit as a “hiccup” or “dustup.” Supporters are pointing to the NATO secretary general giving Trump credit for raising the alliance’s overall military spending. Regardless, the bottom line is that NATO is only as strong as the credibility of its members’ commitments, particularly its most powerful one, the United States. The questioning and non-committal attitude trump whatever words were said to try and show America’s commitment.
The irony of course is that the reason for NATO, Russia, whose Soviet shadow still looms large over the country, has never been more aggressive in the post-Cold War environment, nor has the US under Trump been more ambivalent about Europe’s future. Adding salt to the wounds is the bilateral summit with Putin in Helsinki, where undoubtedly he and Trump will get along fabulously compared to the way the US president caused European allies to bite their tongues in Brussels. Much like Trump’s first visit to Europe, which juxtaposed his awkwardness with America’s democratic allies versus its Middle Eastern autocratic allies, the optics don’t work in his favor internationally. However, at the end of the day Trump seems to care more about projecting his power back to his domestic base, which he has done with great effect by nominating to the Supreme Court another stellar conservative judge who will change its character for at least a generation.
Trump’s populist and anti-globalist instincts fly in the face of every American president since the end of World War II, but they play well at home. Therefore, while NATO may be the greatest international security alliance and organization of its time, Trump is exacerbating the fissures from within. The greatest winner from the NATO summit wasn’t even there, but will be welcoming Trump to Helsinki where he can thank him in person for sowing seeds of doubt. Europe doesn’t have a real alternative to the United States for now, but rubbing our allies’ faces in this fact will only hasten a more divided West that is increasingly focused on itself.
As Christians focus more on the fights at home and take for granted our status around the world, understanding the long-term implications will be critical. In the short-term, the NATO summit was not a disaster, and the normal communique was issued. However, destroying institutions like NATO rarely happens in a spectacular blowup but rather through a gradual undermining of the commitments and values that have guided the alliance for over seven decades. Valuing our allies and partners doesn’t mean not giving some tough love and demanding levels of equity, but doing so with grace and humility will pay higher dividends in the long-run. Coercion and short-term transactionalism can’t substitute for the long-term investment that the greatest generation and Marshall Plan earned America after World War II. The benefits are well-document and well-worth it even for Trump, who has a greater ability to course correct than almost any other president in modern history, given the latitude his supporters and voters give him personally.
Hopefully, the victory Trump claimed at the end of the NATO summit can be realized not through the strong-arm tactics employed, but through the redoubling of America’s commitment to our allies’ security. This commitment ultimately benefits our national interest by combining our allies’ capabilities against those of our adversaries as a credible deterrence that cannot be questioned for any reason.
Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a recent contributor to Providence and serves as the Global Head of Strategic Initiatives and Japan in the Office of the President at Eurasia Group, the world’s leading political risk consultancy.
Photo Credit: Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization pose for the “Family Photo” on July 11, 2018. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.