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Political Editors / July 11, 2018

Trump Takes on NATO

His focus is more about balancing the economic playing field rather than securing military alliances.

If we’ve learned anything about President Donald Trump, it’s that he hates bad deals. He especially hates those bad deals that are costing the American taxpayer. Trump has repeatedly blasted how unfairly the U.S. has been treated in international trade. These unfair trade deals have been his primary justification for imposing tariffs. But Trump has also voiced criticism of America’s historical military alliances, specifically regarding the U.S. having borne the lion’s share of defense costs. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in particular has been one of Trump’s favorite targets, as he again made clear last week in Great Falls, Montana, stating at a rally, “I’m going to tell NATO, ‘You got to start paying your bills. The United States is not going to take care of everything.’”

On Tuesday, Trump headed to the NATO summit where many of Europe’s leaders have been wondering just how serious he is about balancing the scales. If last month’s G7 summit indicated anything, it’s that Trump will not be moved simply because of historical precedent. For Trump, the U.S. has been getting a raw deal and he intends to rectify it. But it would be a mistake to see this as simply a play by Trump to get NATO allies to spend more on their military defense. For Trump, this ultimately is about rebalancing the U.S.‘ economic relationship with Europe.

After arriving at the NATO summit, it didn’t take the president long to deliver his message. Trump once again aired his grievance to NATO’s European leaders that the U.S. was “spending far too much” on defense. But Trump aimed his most pointed criticism at Germany. Speaking to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump said, “Germany, as far as I’m concerned, is captive to Russia because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia. Explain that. We’re supposed to be guarding against Russia and Germany goes out and pays billions and billions of dollars a year to Russia.” Trump added, “I think it’s very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia where we’re supposed to be guarding against Russia.”

Trump was referencing a pipeline deal that Germany and Russia have brokered. Germany is the European Union’s leading importer of natural gas from Russia, amounting to 40% of the country’s annual natural gas purchases. Trump further noted, “The former chancellor of Germany is head of the pipeline company that’s supplying the gas. You tell me, is that appropriate? I’ve been complaining about this from the time I got here.”

Trump’s complaint is legitimate and NATO nations know it. But like when a new boss comes in calling for changes to an underperforming, recalcitrant company, the old management will often chafe angrily against those demands. While several European leaders have expressed concerns that Trump is not committed to NATO, the facts simply don’t support this accusation, as White House officials recently noted that Trump had done more to secure NATO allies than Barack Obama did in his “first six years in office.” For example, it was Trump who gave the green light to supply Ukraine with long-requested weapons to defend itself against Russian aggression, something Obama repeatedly refused to do. Far from abandoning NATO, Trump is working to reform it, to whip it back into shape. And in so doing, he’s rebalancing our military alliance commitments with NATO nations as well as working to pave the way for a level economic relationship between the U.S. and Europe.

According to NATO’s 2014 defense spending agreement, member nations are to spend 2% of their GDP on defense by 2024. Below is a graph showing where nations currently stand. (Note: Not all NATO nations are represented on the graph.)

(Edited.)

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