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How Tense Are Things Between Merkel and Trump?

It’s fairly strained at the moment, but don’t count out a stronger NATO alliance when all is said and done.

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump often noted that NATO was being carried by the United States, and that it was either time for our allies to begin pulling their weight or for the U.S. to pull out. Trump softened this rhetoric over the course of the campaign and into his presidency, but it still hasn’t made him the most popular person in Europe. It’s a trend of disdain from the European public that began well before Trump won the election and has reached fever pitch now that the U.S. has hit the reset button on the Paris Climate Agreement.

But when it comes to NATO, Trump had a point: European nations should spend more on defense. Out of 28 member nations, just five are allocating their proper share to defense and, as the president pointed out, “Two percent [of GDP] is the bare minimum for confronting today’s very real and very vicious threats.” As a point of comparison, the United States spends about 3.6% of GDP on its defense budget, although that number will increase under Trump. The other four NATO nations that make the 2% threshold are Estonia, Greece, Poland and the United Kingdom.

Among all member nations, Trump may be most frustrated with Germany, whose economic strength makes it a natural counterbalance within the alliance. But the reluctance of our Teutonic friends to spend money on their military means they contribute well under the 2% threshold NATO dictates. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who’s in the midst of seeking a fourth term at the German helm, is in the unenviable position of agreeing with Trump on two key issues — European defense and support of the euro against the dollar — while feeling it necessary to run against the American president given his deep unpopularity in Germany and across Europe.

Yet while she’s making overtures in trade and relationships with Asian nations, and preaching about a more self-reliant Europe, Merkel has also been slowly increasing Germany’s defense spending to keep up with NATO demands over the past few years. But it’s a process that must accelerate more rapidly to reach the 2% threshold before Trump’s term ends.

Going it alone, though, wouldn’t be cheap for Germany — or Europe overall, for that matter. As Jim Geraghty notes at National Review: “My suspicion is that Germans will look at the cost of defending themselves from Russia or other potential hostile forces on their own and then happily get out the checkbook to cover that eight-tenths of 1 percent that NATO wants.” This is the likely result if Merkel is re-elected this fall, and once Germany begins to pony up, many other allies may do so as well.

Dare we even think that Trump, ever the negotiator, may use these NATO contribution increases as bargaining chips in a master plan to rework the Paris climate agreement to terms more favorable to Americans? He left the door open on Paris to negotiate a better deal, even if key nations are saying that’s not going to happen. Bear in mind that Italy, France and Germany, which made this joint statement, are among the NATO laggards and therefore lack the credibility to talk about living up to one’s agreements.

At this early stage of his presidency, Trump has demonstrated an uncanny ability to look like a complete failure at first while eventually walking away with a very good deal. Those who thought he could never make it through the primary, never win the general election, and never pass a health care bill are seeing this pattern repeat itself. Now these naysayers are whining that “the belief in shared values [between Germany and the U.S.] has been shattered by the Trump administration.” Given this current acrimony, don’t count out a stronger NATO alliance when Donald Trump leaves office.

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