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Sucking Up to Despots, Alienating Friends

May 27, 2017
Nato leaders

WTF?:  European leaders listening to Trump’s Speech at NATO summit.

Conservative commentator Joe Scarborough called the speech “a love note for Vladimir Putin.” Indeed, if Putin had wanted to sow doubt and distrust among our European allies, he probably couldn’t have done better if he had written Trump’s NATO summit speech himself.

Trump used his first speech to leaders of our NATO allies to berate them for not spending enough for defense, but conspicuously failed to state that the US would consider an attack on any NATO member an attack on all–the central pillar of the alliance.

Trump’s silence on the latter point–Article 5 of the NATO treaty–has been a source of anxiety among European members (particularly Eastern European countries that were once Soviet satellites or republics of the Soviet Union). During last year’s election campaign, Trump repeatedly called NATO “obsolete” and implied that US commitment to defend NATO members would be conditional on how much members contributed to the cost of defense. Trump’s continuing speak-no-evil policy on Putin and Russia has also contributed to their worries in the wake of Moscow’s support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. The revelations in the on-going RussiaGate investigations in the US aren’t helping assuage their concerns either.

At the speech, the Europeans stood stony-faced as Trump declared that  “23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they are supposed to be paying,” and that they owe “massive amounts” from past years. The Washington Post noted that “Trump was left largely on his own after the speech as leaders mingled and laughed with each other, leaving the U.S. president to stand silently on a stage ahead of a group photo.”

The atmosphere was decidedly chillier than the enthusiastic reception he had enjoyed in despotic Saudi Arabia, where members of the Trump entourage like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross marveled at the lack of protesters. [Hint: Protesters in Saudi Arabia are severely punished, like by being beheaded.] In Riyadh, Trump called on his hosts and other Muslim countries to “drive out the terrorists and extremists” (a speech that Newt Gingrich hilariously called “a titanic shift in U.S. foreign policy”), apparently oblivious of the fact that Saudi government promotion of Wahhabism has provided the theological and financial underpinning for Sunni extremism throughout the world and that Saudis have been the most numerous perpetrators of large scale terrorist attacks–like 9/11.

In Israel, his hosts were again determinedly welcoming and suppressed their reactions to gaffes like Trump’s puerile and semi-literate note left at Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. At the Vatican, the meeting with the Pope appears to have been a lot more awkward. A viral photo shows Trump grinning next to Melania and Ivanka, got up like the bride and bridesmaid at a satanic wedding, while the Pope looks like “how did I get roped into this?” Sometimes photos speak volumes.

trumps with pope

But back to NATO. As usual, Trump’s accusations about European freeloading aren’t quite factual. The New York Times pointed out that there is no obligation for NATO members to spend two percent of their GDP on defense. That was established as a guideline in 2014 with a goal of reaching it by 2024, but that’s all it is. No NATO members actually owe anything. NATO has a common budget to cover military and civilian operations, and members are assessed according to a formula based on GDP. No members are in arrears on such contributions.

The enormous size of the US defense budget is an outlier compared to all other countries in the world. (The US spends more on defense that the next seven largest militaries combined.) Most of US military spending since 2001 has gone for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the US entered into on its own, not as part of NATO. While it could be argued that NATO countries have benefited from unilateral US military operations, it’s worth bearing in mind that many European countries opposed the Iraq war. And the UK, Germany, and other NATO countries have sent troops to Afghanistan.

It’s not as if NATO countries spending more on defense would mean the US would spend less. Indeed, Trump’s budget proposal would mean a 10 percent increase in US defense spending because…well, we don’t actually know why. Given that US defense spending is already an order of magnitude more than any other country’s, it seems mainly to be a macho thing. There is a strong argument to be made that rather than the Europeans are spending too little on defense, the US is spending too much–particularly since the proposed increase would mean drastic spending cuts on non-military programs.

The point here is that Trump’s remarks were clearly intended (and understood) as gratuitous affronts to our country’s most valuable allies and delivered in the crudest and most public way possible.

Putin’s grand strategy has long been to create discord between and within Europe and the US. leading eventually to the dissolution of NATO and the EU and paralyzing political conflict in the US. He appears to be succeeding beyond his wildest dreams, with Donald Trump as his useful fool.

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