The Washington Post reports that European leaders are “shocked” by statements Donald Trump has made about the EU and NATO. According to the Post, these leaders fear a “transatlantic split.”
What should we make of this story from an American perspective?
I think we need to analyze the EU and NATO separately. Regarding the EU, Post reporter Michael Birnbaum points to a statement by Trump that he expects the EU to break up and that he’s indifferent to its fate.
The predictive part of Trump’s statement may well prove accurate. Trump’s indifference to an EU breakup doesn’t both me. Like many conservatives, I’m no fan of the EU as it has panned out.
In any case, the EU shouldn’t need American boosterism to flourish or survive. As Angela Merkel said in response to Trump, “we Europeans have our destiny in our own hands.”
One can question whether it is wise for Trump to opine right now about the EU, but the substance of what he said shouldn’t be of concern
NATO is another matter. NATO does need the U.S. and, in my view, a strong NATO is in America’s interest.
What did Trump say about NATO? He called NATO “obsolete” and “very unfair to the United States.” But he added: “With that being said, NATO is very important to me.”
If Trump meant by “obsolete” that NATO is no longer useful (a meaning that corresponds to the dictionary definition), European leaders should be alarmed and so, I think, should Americans. NATO stands as a bulwark against Russian aggression. To view NATO as no longer useful is to confirm my worst fear that Trump is sanguine about Putin’s aggressive Russia.
But Trump did not appear to mean that NATO is no longer useful. If that’s what he meant, he wouldn’t have said “NATO is very important to me.” What Trump probably meant is that NATO is dated and in need of an overhaul.
Specifically, Trump seemed to be saying that NATO needs to be revised so that it no longer is “very unfair to the United States.” This would be consistent with his line on NATO throughout the campaign that some (or maybe many or maybe all) NATO countries aren’t contributing their fair share for their defense.
This understanding of Trump’s statement is less alarming than the view that NATO is obsolete in the strict sense. However, it is not innocuous. I would hate to see NATO falter because the U.S. responded badly after failing to squeeze more dollars out of, say, Latvia or Bulgaria.
On the other hand, it makes sense to try to negotiate a lightening of the U.S. load and an increase in European responsibility for its defense. Quite possibly Trump’s pronouncements on NATO are part of a strategy to negotiate these outcomes.
In my view, the jury is very much out on Trump when it comes to Russia and NATO policy.