President Donald Trump fancies himself a marketing genius. On Tuesday morning, he undertook one of his greatest rebranding exercises of all time: making himself into a strong champion of NATO.
Last week, ahead of the alliance’s 70th anniversary bash in London, French President Emmanuel Macron gave an interview to the Economist in which he said that Europe could no longer rely on the US to defend it. “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO,” Macron said.
That apparently didn’t sit well with Trump — the man who once called the alliance “obsolete” — and led him to take the unusual position of supporting NATO.
“Nobody needs [NATO] more than France, and that’s why I think when France makes a statement like they made about NATO, that’s a very dangerous statement for them to make,” Trump said alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in London. “That is a very, very nasty statement to essentially, including them, 28 countries.”
The alliance “has a great purpose,” the president continued, “especially with the fact that NATO is becoming much more flexible in terms of what it looked at.”
Since before Trump was even elected, experts have openly worried that his skepticism of NATO could lead to its dissolution. Russia would take advantage of that weakness, and the security guarantees America has given its European allies for decades would fade away.
But Trump in recent days has seemingly become a NATO fan. The day before the NATO birthday celebration in London, the president tweeted that alliance members have upped their defense spending due to his insistence.
In the 3 decades before my election, NATO spending declined by two-thirds, and only 3 other NATO members were meeting their financial obligations. Since I took office, the number of NATO allies fulfilling their obligations more than DOUBLED, and NATO spending increased by $130B!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 2, 2019
Some experts say the past two days indicate a shift in the way Trump sees the alliance. “President Trump now views NATO as one of his foreign policy successes,” Heather Conley, a European security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told me.
However, he is still openly lambasting allies like France who show any dissent, which could lead to further tensions with allies this week.
“Trump will have difficulties managing those disruptive forces over the next 24 hours which could end up tarnishing his declared foreign policy success,” Conley added.
Trump is still no NATO defender
It seems as though Macron’s comments sparked Trump’s transformation. According to Axios, Trump is angry at the French president for a bevy of things, but the “brain death” comment stung the most as it undercuts what Trump believes is a major win on the world stage. A US official told Axios, “Macron’s comments may have the ironic effect of causing Trump to speak more positively about the alliance to contradict Macron’s negativity.” And that’s exactly what happened.
Trump is still no major NATO booster, though. Even in his comments disparaging Macron, he said, “The one that benefits really the least [from the alliance] is the United States.” Trump made no mention of how the only time NATO’s Article 5 — the part of the treaty that says an attack on one ally is an attack on all — has been invoked was to help the United States after 9/11. NATO allies have played major roles in the US-led wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere since.
And Trump clearly still has reservations about the alliance as an institution. Just last year, Trump repeatedly told US officials he wanted to withdraw the US from NATO. Those sentiments and his general behavior led NATO to move the 70th anniversary celebration from Washington to London.
It therefore remains unclear if Trump has truly changed his tune on NATO, or just wants to use members spending more on the military as a campaign talking point, or is just mad at Macron, or all of the above. What is clear is that it will take some time before America’s European allies will trust him — and the United States — as true NATO leaders again.