OpEd: Trump’s NATO Detour En Route to the “Bully Boy” Helsinki Summit

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Written by Ambassador Marc Ginsberg

Which Donald Trump will arrive at this week’s tense NATO summit? The tariff tantrum Trump, or a president eager to bring the curtain down on the soap opera he created last month at the Quebec G7 summit?

As with all things “Trump” it will greatly depend on what Fox New Channel’s Rasputin-like Sean Hannity instructed Trump the evening before. It is rather appealing, after all, for an egged-on Trump to lather up his base of supporters how badly NATO allies are freeloading off of their hard-earned taxpayer dollars.

NATO, the European Union, Merkel, Trudeau automobile tariffs, refugees—it’s all the same to Trump. European leaders—particularly those who run the European Union—are not worthy of honorable mentions, the sort that Trump enjoys dishing out to the likes of Kim Jong-Un and Vladimir Putin. When Trump saches into the gleaming new NATO headquarters building in Brussels (which he found time to critique a few months ago) he most likely will say to himself: “what a terrible waste of American taxpayer dollars, and my name is not even on it!”

If anyone believes that Trump’s goal at Brussels is to squeeze NATO members to cough up more of their national budgets for defense to meet the prescribed 2% GDP allocation, I have a bridge over the East River to sell them.

Mind you, there is nothing wrong with jawboning NATO allies to get to that goal ASAP.  Every prior U.S. president has echoed that refrain. But NATO cannot become, nor should we stand by and permit Trump to browbeat its members as if they were all Trump Company real estate subcontractors. Does it matter to Trump that NATO members have substantially increased their defense spending under his watch (the majority now on track to reach the requisite 2% GDP defense spending goal by 2023) and that he has made a substantial difference here?

But to Trump, the NATO budget agenda is a means to other ends. Sadly, Trump’s likely objective in Brussels is to continue roughing up America’s allies to instill uncertainty into NATO’s solid front against Russian aggression. Trump has made it abundantly clear that he considers America’s essential leadership in NATO as a bargaining chip to get his way on his tariff war with NATO’s key members—particularly Germany, which is only spending 1.2% of its budget on national defense (and fleecing U.S. automobile manufacturers with high tariffs, to boot).

Who would be shocked if Trump declared that NATO military exercises are a waste of money and a “provocation” against Russia. Or that he tweets out one of his idiosyncratic messages en route to Brussels or to his Helsinki meeting with Putin muddying the waters again on the U.S. binding commitment to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty just to disrupt and sow discord?

So rather than an inconvenient detour, the NATO Summit fits quite nicely into Trump’s domestic agenda—even more so because he knows that Europeans do not share his obsequious, mysterious dictatorship envy with the crown jewel of autocrats, Vladimir Putin with whom he will be meeting just a few hours after he leaves his trail of spilled blood in Brussels.

Everyone had fair warning of which Trump would show up. Trump reportedly sent out approximately one dozen angry “Dear Jane and Dear Joe” letters to key NATO leaders in June just to make sure they got the gist of his planned Summit salvos.

In his uniquely undiplomatic correspondence to our key allies, Trump insinuated that they are intentionally underspending on defense and threatened that the U.S. would alter its attitude toward NATO unless every NATO member met the alliance’s 2% of GDP defense spending goal set at the Wales NATO summit meeting in 2014.

When Trump is confronted by his advisers with “NATO facts” detailing how essential the alliance’s contributions is to America’s security (in Afghanistan, Syria, or in sub-Sahara against ISIS) all Trump sees are U.S. dollars flying out the door. Trump conjures up another of his alternative facts that there must be some sort of NATO club piggy bank that each member contributes to so that he can make a big withdrawal and wave a big check around   as if he just won the Publisher’s Clearing House payoff.

It’s regrettable that one must have to come to the defense of NATO’s critical importance to American global security in this age of Trump. NATO is the anchor to check Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe, to combat radical Islamic terror, and the backbone of our global alliance structure—reaching all the way into Afghanistan and into sub-Saharan Africa. And at Brussels, leaders are planning to unveil an ambitious new plan to create two new military command structures which would enable NATO to deploy 30 battalions, 30 squadrons of planes and 30 ships—within 30 days—to address threats to the Alliance.

Unfortunately, I predict Trump has zero intention to emerge from the NATO summit healing the divisions and the acrimonious discord he orchestrated at the Quebec G7 meeting.

And how does all this NATO discord play in the hands of America’s adversaries? Mr. Putin is testing the Alliance daily. In Estonia (cyber-attacks), with Russian subs and planes violating NATO sea and airspace, with Putin’s grinding war in eastern Ukraine, and with meddling in the democratic elections of virtually every NATO member. A divided NATO is music to Putin’s ears.

And where is the pushback from Republican members of Congress to Trump’s trans-Atlantic demolition derby? The very Republicans who have championed the importance of NATO to America’s security? Hiding their heads again. Are they going to be co-drivers to Trump against our allies and NATO and stand idly by?

It is one thing to withdraw from a non-binding Iran nuclear deal. It is entirely another to intentionally decay American constitutionally-binding treaty obligations. No Commander-in-Chief has that authority, not even you, Mr. Trump.

About the author: Ambassador Marc Ginsberg is former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco and Deputy White House Senior Adviser. He is currently a Senior Global Adviser to the Counter Extremism Project.