Get out the fainting couches! President Trump is in Europe, and once again he is saying the unsayable. The occasion is the NATO summit that began today in Brussels. Trump fired an opening salvo that included two themes, as reported by Bloomberg. The first is that Germany, in particular, undermines the alliance’s defenses against Russia by being too dependent on Russian natural gas:
“It’s very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia where we’re supposed to be guarding against Russia and Germany goes out and pays billions and billions of dollars a year to Russia,” Trump said before meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday morning.
Trump pressed on: “If you look at it, Germany is a captive of Russia, because they supply — they got rid of their coal plants, got rid of their nuclear, they’re getting so much of the oil and gas from Russia. I think it’s something NATO has to look at.”
Trump is right about this. Germany stupidly closed nuclear and coal power plants in favor of huge investments in “green” energy. Those investments, predictably, have failed to do anything other than drive the price of electricity unacceptably high. Germany is now backing away from its “green” policies in favor of natural gas. Where does it get most of its natural gas? From Russia.
The specific focus of Trump’s criticism is the proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would take gas from Russia to Germany. That pipeline has been controversial for a while, as CNBC explains:
Some European countries oppose Nord Stream 2, arguing that it increases Europe’s dependence on Russia and poses threats to their national security. The opposition comes primarily from the Baltic states and former Soviet satellite nations, including Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
They argue Europe should not be filling Moscow’s coffers after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and in light of its broader efforts to destabilize the European Union.
Nord Stream 2 also reduces Europe’s reliance on Russian gas that runs through Ukraine’s pipeline system, opponents say. That makes it easier for the Kremlin to punish its Eastern European neighbors by cutting off gas supplies while minimizing damage to its lucrative markets in the broader EU.
So President Trump is siding with Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic countries. He also is agreeing with Barack Obama:
President Barack Obama opposed Nord Stream 2 and President George W. Bush came out against the original Nord Stream prior to its completion in 2011. Like the central and eastern European countries, they worried it increased Russian influence over the Continent.
That policy has carried over into the Trump administration.
The concern about Russian influence in Central and Western Europe is well founded. In the past, Putin’s regime has demanded concessions from the West by threatening to cut off natural gas supplies. These first two headlines are from the New York Times; the Times may have forgotten, but the Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians haven’t: Russia Cuts Gas, and Europe Shivers, January 6, 2009; Gazprom Cuts Russia’s Natural Gas Supply to Ukraine, June 16, 2014; Telegraph: Putin mocks the West and threatens to turn off gas supplies, March 7, 2014; Financial Times: Europe supply in jeopardy as Putin warns of Ukraine gas cut, April 11, 2014. Given this history–and these links are just a few samples–why would Germany want to increase its dependence on Russian natural gas?
I think the answer is that German post-war guilt is now indistinguishable from lazy softness. Russia is playing a hard game, annexing Crimea, putting constant pressure on Ukraine, making preparations to invade the Baltics. Putin’s regime is trying to restore the Russian empire, and it is questionable whether Europeans west of Poland have the will to resist. Trump is obviously, and rightly, trying to stiffen their spines.
Trump’s second point, one that he made during the 2016 campaign and often since, is that our NATO allies need to begin bearing their fair share of the cost of the alliance. In the aftermath of World War II, when the U.S. had just about the only industrial economy that hadn’t been bombed, it made sense for the bulk of the money to come from U.S. taxpayers. That hasn’t been true for a long time, and Trump shouldn’t have to be the first president to assert the interests of American taxpayers. On this issue, too, he is right:
“Many countries owe us,” Trump said in Brussels, before attending the summit at NATO headquarters. “The United States is paying far too much and other countries are not paying enough… This has been going on for decades, for decades, it’s disproportionate and not fair to the taxpayers of the United States.”
Trump is going to succeed here. A number of NATO countries have pledged to increase their defense contributions, but he is pressing them to act more rapidly. This tweet from earlier today sums up the situation well:
What good is NATO if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy? Why are there only 5 out of 29 countries that have met their commitment? The U.S. is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on Trade. Must pay 2% of GDP IMMEDIATELY, not by 2025.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 11, 2018
This one came just 15 minutes ago:
Billions of additional dollars are being spent by NATO countries since my visit last year, at my request, but it isn’t nearly enough. U.S. spends too much. Europe’s borders are BAD! Pipeline dollars to Russia are not acceptable!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 11, 2018
Trump is right about a more equal sharing of the costs of defending Europe and the North Atlantic. More importantly, he is right about the sheep-like quiescence of too many Western Europeans–Angela Merkel is one among many–in the face of a serious challenge from Russia.
Pretty much all the press coverage of the NATO summit, consisting mostly of hand-wringing and Trump-bashing, is ignorant and partisan. President Trump is standing up for American security and American taxpayers, as he promised to do. He could do it more effectively if nearly the entire American establishment were not arrayed against him and, implicitly, on the side of the Putin regime.