One word that doesn’t come up an awful lot in connection with Trumpian diplomacy is “goal.” As in, “President Trump’s long-term goal is [insert desired outcome here].” Even figuring out his short-term ones can feel like dreaming that you’re finally a contestant on Jeopardy!, but Alex Trebek is jabbering away in fluent Klingon.
He claimed victory at the end of this week’s NATO summit in Brussels after badgering the other member nations to increase their defense spending more hurriedly than the scheduled ramp-up to two percent of GDP by 2024. He wants that to happen by January of 2019 instead, but at least two European leaders—France’s Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Guiseppe Conte—promptly denied that they’d agreed to anything of the kind. Germany’s Angela Merkel, who ages visibly whenever she’s obliged to behave as if she and Trump even notionally live on the same planet, said her country might consider accelerated increases, but not in response to American pressure.
In any case, it’s supremely unlikely that any NATO member will go along with (or even seriously consider) Trump’s bombshell demand to up the figure to four percent of GDP in the long run, since that’s more than even the United States, the alliance’s lone military behemoth, currently shells out. That’s what will give him an opening to go right back to doing what he’s best at and loves to do, which is being fractious and disruptive for disruption’s sake. By next January, if not sooner, you know he’ll be berating NATO’s other members for failing to deliver on promises they never made to begin with.
He’d become the first American president to threaten to pull the U.S. out NATO and “go it alone” if his demands weren’t met.
The alliance’s other members can’t have felt especially placated, let alone reassured, by Trump magnaminiously declaring “I believe in NATO” at the summit’s end. Isn’t that supposed to be a given, not a concession? Besides, that was after, at least by some accounts, he’d become the first American president to threaten at one closed-door session to pull the U.S. out of the organization and “go it alone” if his demands weren’t met. Before reboarding Air Force Once to fly to London, the next stop on the seven-day European jaunt that concludes with his summit meeting with Putin in Helsinki on Monday, he even speculated that he might be able to do it without needing congressional authorization.
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The reason Trump’s apparent good humor at the meeting’s end was either meaningless or unnerving is that he’d already made it obvious he doesn’t understand the point of alliances or value international cooperation of any sort. His irritation at the other members over their laggardly defense spending isn’t totally misplaced; his predecessors voiced it too, just nowhere near as rudely. But treating that as if it’s the only issue he cares about and thinks is worth discussing demonstrates that Trump has no grasp of or interest in NATO’s reason for being – unless, that is, he does and he’s actively hostile to it.
Trump's base at home are under the impression that Trump is asserting American power, not degrading it.
And even if he doesn’t reward Putin with some sort of unilateral offer of appeasement in Finland, which he’s undoubtedly tempted to, Trump’s fawning (not to say groveling) attitude is sure to undercut whatever firm message to Russia the communique was meant to convey.
Naturally, his base here at home—that fabled base—won’t care. Because they’ve never seen the point of alliances either, they’re still under the impression that Trump is asserting American power, not degrading it. They probably loved one White House official’s recent (and breathtakingly crass) summary of the Trump foreign-policy doctrine: “’We’re America, bitch. That’s the Trump Doctrine.” But what if it turns out that we’re Putin’s bitch instead?