United States President Donald Trump made an 180-degree turn with his perspective of NATO during the annual NATO summit in London Dec. 3-4. As with many things involving US politics, transition from critic to fierce support lasted only briefly in what amounted to a series of chaotic, blundering events and statements involving European leaders and their American counterpart. By the time Air Force One landed in Washington, Trump was once again the NATO critic he has always been, this time with an added dose of loathing for certain world leaders.
A Different World
To properly understand why Trump’s views on NATO are so significant – and more importantly, why they were they made headlines last week – it is worth revisiting his previous statements on the alliance. On March 21, 2016, he visited The Washington Post for an unscripted meeting with its editorial board and CNN for a town hall segment. In both cases, the president stressed the unfair financial burden the US bears to support NATO. He also lamented that the alliance was created for a different world, suggesting that perhaps the alliance is no longer fit for the 21st century.
“NATO was set up at a different time. NATO was set up when we were a richer country. We’re not a rich country anymore,” Trump said at The Washington Post. “NATO is costing us a fortune and yes, we’re protecting Europe with NATO but we’re spending a lot of money. Number one, I think the distribution of costs has to be changed.”
He went on to tell his town hall audience that the US should reconsider its participation in the alliance, again by citing the costs compared with other member states. Less than a week later, he called it “obsolete” in a tweet and he maintained that position throughout the campaign and his presidency. While has kept Washington in the organization since winning the presidency, it is not for lack of trying to remove the US from the agreement.
White House officials told The New York Times Trump made several attempts in 2018 to withdraw from the organization. In the Oval Office, his now-former advisors, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Advisor John Bolton, fought him behind the scenes to steer him off that path. The issue never took root as a legitimate policy issue, however, thanks to the combined efforts of White House staff and the demands of other affairs.
Old, Fat, and Sloppy
This year, the alliance celebrated its 70th birthday, but what would have been an occasion for commemorating the strength of western democracies was overshadowed by Trump’s ego. Whether intentional or not French President Emmanuel Macron baited him into a public feud.
“What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO,” Macron said in a Nov. 7 interview with The Economist. “You have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies. None.”
That was all it took for Trump to pivot on the alliance. Suddenly, he became its most ardent supporter.
“You just can’t go around making statements like that about NATO. It’s very disrespectful,” Trump said, responding to Macron while ignoring his comments three years ago that “NATO is obsolete, it’s old, it’s fat, it’s sloppy.”
When the two leaders met in London, they held a joint press conference, which led to some visibly uncomfortable moments between them. After Trump said a majority of ISIS prisoners are from Europe – France, Germany, and the United Kingdom in particular – Macron took a harsher tone and corrected him. Only 2,000 of 10,000 detained insurgents in Syria are from nations outside Iraq and Syria, and only 800 of those are from Europe.
Shortly after Trump and Macron trading barbs, footage leaked of Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte making fun of Trump’s impromptu solo press conference which ran nearly an hour. After seeing the video, Trump called Trudeau “two-faced” and then joked about calling him that.
Despite Trump proving capable of brushing off the comments, he decided to leave the NATO summit early, cancelling planned closing remarks. On a related note, the US ambassador to Denmark prohibited a US-NATO expert from delivering a speech at a conference in Copenhagen Tuesday. The event was organized by the American embassy and a Danish policy organization, which invited Stanley Sloan to give the keynote speech.
Sloan has been critical of Trump in the past, but his experience as a former analyst for the US Central Intelligence Agency and visiting scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont has made his observations on NATO relevant to the international community. Ambassador Carla Sands compelled the Danish Atlantic Council to withdraw Sloan’s invitation. The entire conference was consequently cancelled.
Trump’s views on NATO, whether changed or not, are simply another area of International affairs that his administration is struggling to find its footing in. Macron’s criticism of the lack of US leadership and coordination was arguably justified after Trump gave Turkey the green light to take control of parts of northern Syria. Turkey, while not a NATO member, was an ally and the move was perceived by European NATO members as a betrayal.