Donald Trump’s rhetoric on NATO during Tuesday night’s congressional address seemed to offer something new to the public — one of only a few parts of the speech that did. His words on the military alliance sounded a bit more optimistic than usual, but it turns out that Trump’s good cheer about NATO mainly served to make a self-congratulatory claim of leadership that isn’t true.
“We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two world wars and the Cold War and defeated communism,” he said to hearty applause from Congress.
As he has many times in the past, he called for NATO member countries to fulfill their financial obligations to the post-World War II military alliance. But this time, he was feeling better about that prospect. Why? According to him, his tough talk on NATO members pulling their weight had already begun to inspire them to clean up their acts and start contributing more to their defense budgets just 40 days into his presidency.
“Now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that,” he said. "In fact, I can tell you, the money is pouring in."
"Very nice," he added.
The only problem is, NATO members’ decisions to start increasing their defense spending began before Trump entered office.
As CNN reports, NATO members that were failing to live up to their agreement to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense made a commitment to do so back in 2014. And they began to take steps toward that commitment (which only five of 28 members currently fulfill). In 2015, the alliance’s overall defense spending rose for the first time in 20 years. In 2016, 22 of 28 NATO members saw an increase in their defense budgets, CNN notes.
In other words, NATO members had already begun to pick up their defense spending under then-President Barack Obama, who had himself persistently called for NATO members to meet their required contributions. There’s no evidence at the moment that Trump has done anything to accelerate that dynamic. In fact, the foreign minister of Germany — the richest country in Europe — cast doubt on the reality of a 2 percent target on Wednesday, and described it as more of a goal than a binding obligation.
It’s not the first time Trump’s tried claiming undeserved credit for improving NATO. Last year, during the campaign, he argued that his criticism of NATO as ill-suited to combat terrorism caused the organization to ramp up counter-terrorism efforts. That was also untrue.
The president’s slightly more sanguine rhetoric on NATO Tuesday might be an attempt to move past his administration’s threatening and inconsistent positioning on the issue.
By claiming that NATO is getting back into shape, Trump could be trying to create a basis to pivot from being coercive on NATO funding to being a bit more traditionally whiny about it, as previous administrations have been. And along the way, he gets to claim credit for achieving something he had no role in.
Then again, it’s important to not read too much into any remark Trump makes. One of his few consistent traits is that he is utterly inconsistent, and his administration’s attitude toward NATO fits that pattern perfectly. We’ll have to take his position on this issue just as the US’s allies in Europe do: day by day.