Donald Trump has been a consistent critic of NATO since his presidency began. At one point he even questioned whether the US should be a member of this alliance. During his first meeting with former British Prime Minister Theresa May, she managed to persuade the president that NATO still has many advantages and she left Washington in January 2017 claiming that Trump is ‘100 percent’ behind the alliance.
Though he may now support the principle behind NATO’s existence, before this week’s summit commemorating 70 years since the alliance was founded, Trump’s vision for the organisation has become clearer since his first meeting with May. He does not oppose US membership of NATO, but he believes that for too long, America has been carrying the burden of increasing its defence spending whilst its allies have failed to do so. This is a point both George W. Bush and Barack Obama once made, but Trump has drilled this point into NATO leaders more so than any of his predecessors.
In June 2018, Trump wrote sharply worded letters to the German, Norwegian and Canadian leaders taking them to task for spending too little on their defence and warning that the US is losing patience with their failure to meet their own security obligations. He felt that many of the NATO states are not fulfilling their commitments made at the 2014 Wales summit to increase their defence spending by two percent. According to Bloomberg, alliance members have upped their military spending by about $130 billion from 2016 to 2020. Though Trump’s NATO rhetoric may appear hostile, he has still accelerated new commitments of American troops and software to Europe. This is despite his argument that the US is carrying the alliance’s burden.
But this week’s summit proved that the president has become a passionate NATO advocate. He picked a public spat with French President Emmanuel Macron for his ‘dangerous’ and ‘nasty’ demands for NATO reform in front of reporters, disagreeing over Turkey’s membership in the alliance and whether Islamic State has really been defeated. He even celebrated the organisation’s existence with other world leaders on Tuesday.
Trump also clarified what he likes about the alliance. He awarded himself credit for NATO members increasing their military budgets. However, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that the President has been ‘successful’ in urging other nations to increase their military spending and stated that America cannot share the burden on its own. The President’s enthusiasm for the alliance left German Chancellor Angela Merkel feeling optimistic that the summit will not descend into a row.
Though he has always believed in more positive dialogue with Russia, Trump now realises that NATO is useful in countering both Moscow and Beijing, especially as the US warns against Chinese company Huawei building infrastructure in NATO countries. The French are wary of adopting a strong stance against China. This highlights that the problem with the alliance is that many countries disagree with the President’s unorthodox foreign policy.
Two positives have emerged from this week’s meeting; Trump’s support and vision of the alliance is clear, which should reassure many NATO states. Also, the President can return home knowing that many leaders like Rutte agree that he has made a positive case for alliance members to increase their military spending. Though it is clear not all of NATO’s leaders agree with the US’s outlook on issues like China and Iran, the alliance must be preserved as Russia and China continue to display a threat to the alliance’s vital interests. A disunited NATO will only work to Putin’s or Jinping’s advantage. It is refreshing to see politicians rejoice in celebrating the organisation’s 70th birthday.