President Donald Trump doesn’t like NATO — and he doesn’t seem to care who knows it.
During this month’s gathering of the Group of Seven — the seven countries with the largest economies in the world — Trump reportedly railed against prominent US allies. In particular, he criticized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — a decades-long military alliance between the US, Canada, and European nations.
“NATO is as bad as NAFTA,” Trump told G7 leaders in Canada, according to a report by Axios. “It’s much too costly for the US.”
That’s a striking thing to have said ahead of July’s NATO summit in Brussels, where Trump and 28 US allies will meet to discuss threats to Europe — and in particular, Russia. (On Thursday, the White House confirmed that Trump will also meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16, four days after the NATO summit concludes.)
Experts have roundly criticized Trump’s G7 meeting comment because it breaks with longstanding decision of support for the alliance — while lumping NATO together with a trade deal (NAFTA) that Trump hates. “That’s an unfortunate comparison,” Magnus Nordenman, a European security expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, told me.
The president’s comment is not terribly surprising — but wholly alarming
Trump has spent his year and a half in office reneging on America’s multilateral commitments, such as removing the US from the Iran nuclear deal in May. And NATO has clearly failed to escape Trump’s ire.
In May 2017 Trump failed to commit the US to NATO’s Article 5, which says an attack on one ally is an attack on all. (The following month he did commit to the common-defense provision in an impromptu comment at a White House press conference.) Trump’s tepid support has led some European allies to question if the US would come to their aid if, say, Russia attacked them.
In July of that year Trump told the New York Times that the US would come to the aid of NATO allies only if they “fulfill their obligations us.” He was likely alluding to how many NATO allies don’t spend the required 2 percent of their GDP on defense.
Here’s his interaction with the Times’s David Sanger and Maggie Haberman on July 21, 2016:
Sanger: Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations —
Trump: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.
Haberman: And if not?
Trump: Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.
That interview prompted Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Senate Republican, to lambaste then-candidate Trump about his NATO stance.
“It’s the most important military alliance in world history,” McConnell said. “It remains relevant today. Many Americans don’t know that the operation in Afghanistan is a NATO operation,” he noted, adding, “I want to reassure our NATO allies that we will come to the defense of any member that is threatened.”
McConnell likely felt compelled to speak out because Trump’s comments struck at the core of what NATO is: an alliance of 29 nations that will defend one another no matter what, with the United States serving as the main protector. If the US abandons that role, then NATO — an organization founded in 1949 in part to ensure war would never again break out in Europe — ceases to be a powerful, credible, functional political-military organization.
“While Trump is right to push our allies to spend more on defense, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” said Nordenman, the Atlantic Council expert. “NATO is America’s Alliance. We created it, and we lead it,” he texted me.
But here’s what’s more alarming: Trump equated NATO with NAFTA, the free-trade deal between the United States, Mexico, and Canada that he’s criticized multiple times.
Trump continually calls NAFTA the “worst trade deal in the history of the world” and wants the US to renegotiate the terms with neighbors Mexico and Canada. That process is underway but not much progress appears to have been made so far. Trump wants the deal changed because he claims the other countries have reaped more rewards from the trade deal than the States, thereby hurting the US economy.
The fact that the president might believe NATO is equivalent to what he calls the “worst trade deal” is troublesome — and it gives Putin an opening when he meets with Trump next month. It’s possible that Putin may further convince Trump that NATO is an outdated organization that America no longer needs to prop up.
It was painfully clear before Trump entered the White House that he had a penchant for attacking his friends and cozying up to America’s adversaries. But now it seems Trump is hellbent on undermining the country’s strongest military alliance — possibly weakening America’s power in the world in the process.