President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during their bilateral meeting, Wednesday, July 11, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium.

President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during their bilateral meeting, Wednesday, July 11, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. AP / Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Trump vs. NATO: It's Not Just About the Money

The president’s emphasis on spending obscures a much deeper skepticism of alliances.

On Thursday, the president of the United States threw into crisis mode the military alliance America has led since the aftermath of World War II, reportedly threatening his fellow NATO leaders in an emergency meeting that if each country didn’t start spending at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense by January, he would “do his own thing.”

“What good is NATO,” Donald Trump had asked the day before, while attending a meeting of the alliance in Brussels, if Germany is buying billions of dollars worth of gas and becoming more dependent on energy from Russia, the very country NATO is designed to deter? “The U.S. is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on Trade,” he tweeted.

But while Trump couched his criticism in terms of dollars and cents, it’s actually not, to quote Jessie J, about the money—at least not entirely. It’s fundamentally about his genuinely radical way of thinking about allies.

If the president’s problem with NATO was only about money—about more equitable “burden-sharing” among allies, as Trump’s NATO ambassador told reporters in a recent briefing—he might have refrained from repeatedly exaggerating the imbalances in NATO contributions. He might have claimed victory this week in Brussels for spurring Canada and NATO’s European members to commit to an additional $266 billion in military spending by 2024, even if that leaves some countries short of the target 2 percent of GDP. Or he might have stuck to the 2-percent goal in Brussels, rather than abruptly informing stunned European leaders that he would now like them to spend 4 percent of their GDP on defense—more than the United States itself presently devotes to its military.

What most distinguishes Trump’s critiques from those of previous U.S. presidents—who at times complained about free-riding friends and acted unilaterally when partners were perceived as obstacles to pursuing U.S. interests—is that Trump’s grievances aren’t just about having to expend more resources than America’s allies, or about expending those resources on alliances that aren’t demonstrating their value. They’re also about what Trump apparently considers the supreme folly of investing in alliances that harm or even constitute direct threats to the United States.

As Trump seems to see it, allies—with their free-trade deals and military alliances and unending expectations of preferential treatment—tie down the United States, Gulliver-like, and infringe on its sovereignty. They cynically take advantage of their superpower patron while cloaking their naked self-interest in the high-minded language of multilateralism and shared interests. They flourish by exploiting America’s largesse and sapping the United States of its strength. (Hence, perhaps, why Trump is blasting Germany for buying gas from Russia—and not from the energy-rich United States—while depending on the United States to defend it from Russia.) Trump’s gripes about the “$151 Billion trade deficit” with the European Union or the U.S. spending “at least 70 percent for NATO” are really just numerical ways of saying the United States is getting screwed by supposed friends who are laughing all the way to the bank.

This is why the president reportedly likes to refer to longtime American partners such as Canada, France, and Germany as “so-called allies” and to claim that these allies “don’t care about us”—only themselves. It’s why, at a rally in Ohio this spring, he declared, “Our friends did more damage to us than our enemies. Because we didn’t deal with our enemies. We dealt with our friends and we dealt incompetently.” And it helps explain Trump’s fluid, transactional, and iconoclastic approach to foreign policy, which is predicated on the notion that the United States has to stop looking out for the world and start looking out for itself.

In Trump’s conception of the world, it seems, everyone is a frenemy: a selfish competitor, be it Germany or Russia or North Korea, to be coerced or courted depending on what Trump believes suits American interests at any given moment. And everything—including decades-old friendships and animosities—is up for negotiation. Nothing is sacred.

“We have to explain to him that countries that have worked with us together in the past expect a level of loyalty from us, but he doesn’t believe that this should factor into the equation,” a senior Trump administration official recently told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.

These ideas of Trump’s, moreover, are not new; they appear to be among the president’s core convictions. In 1987, he took out a full-page ad in several newspapers calling on the U.S. government to “tax” allies such as Japan and Saudi Arabia so that the American economy could “grow unencumbered by the cost of defending those who can easily afford to pay us for the defense of their freedom” and whose “stake in their protection is far greater than ours.” In a 1990 Playboy interview, he argued that “our country needs more ego” because “our so-called allies” have “outegotized this country” and made “billions screwing us” by controlling “the greatest money machine ever assembled and it’s sitting on our backs.” A President Trump, he said, “wouldn’t trust anyone. He wouldn’t trust the Russians; he wouldn’t trust our allies.” (Ahead of this week’s NATO summit, Trump deployed strikingly similar language, accusingAmerica’s allies of being “worse” than its adversaries by “robbing” the U.S. “piggy bank.” He also lamented that the United States disproportionately supports NATO even though it “helps [the Europeans] a lot more than it helps us.”)

Shortly before Trump left for Europe, Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution, who is one of the most incisive interpreters of Trump’s views of the world, reflected on this tendency of the president’s to view allies not merely as burdens or anachronisms but as direct threats. It’s instructive, he argued, in understanding why Trump might treat Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he will meet with next week in Finland, differently than he is treating European leaders this week in Belgium. And it speaks to just how dramatically Trump could transform U.S. foreign policy and international affairs more broadly.

“Since 1987, Trump’s worldview has been motivated much more by anger toward allies and partners than enemies,” Wright wrote on Twitter. “This is because he sees alliance security commitments and free trade as existential threats to U.S. interests. He has never really been bothered about geopolitical stability, etc. so when he looks at Russia/[the] Soviet Union, he sees a country that the U.S. has no security commitments to and no trade with. So no problem! By contrast, Japan, [South] Korea, Germany, etc. all tick the threat box. Add to the mix that ... he truly couldn’t care less about a Russian threat to Europe—other [people’s] business in his view. The net effect is he genuinely thinks allies and partners are a greater problem for U.S. interests than the Russians.”

“No one else agrees with him so he has struggled to turn this into policy,” Wright added. “But he’s really trying now.”

Or, as Wright told me on the eve of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, if Trump “was to go to the Germans or the Japanese and demand hundreds of billions of dollars a year, they would not be able or willing to do that. And that would give him a pretext to unilaterally suspend [America’s security] guarantees or simply say he wouldn’t uphold them.”

“We make a mistake when we equate” Trump’s position with past American presidents’ frustrations with allies for not shouldering enough of the burden of their common work, Wright said at the time. Trump’s is “a much more imperial version of U.S. hegemony.”