Trump spectacle leaves NATO allies with “whiplash”.
BRUSSELS — The NATO summit was concluding on course here Thursday, with European leaders pleased that their unruly American counterpart had been surprisingly well behaved, if not truly conciliatory. Their planes were getting gassed up at the airport, and they were ready to call the whole shebang a success and jet home.
Then President Donald Trump showed up, a half-hour late and with another agenda. He effectively took a meeting over Georgia and Ukraine hostage by seizing the floor and, one by one, scolding and shaming countries for their defense spending.
Trump was on such a tear that some diplomats said they feared he could well try to withdraw the United States from NATO, rupturing the existing world order. For more than an hour, the transatlantic alliance was caught in the chaos of Trump’s making — until the president called an impromptu news conference to announce that everything, in fact, was just fine.
“I believe in NATO,” Trump said, claiming credit for forcing Western allies to raise their defense spending to “levels never thought of before.” He called the alliance “a fine-tuned machine,” remarking that there had been “great unity, great spirit, great esprit de corps.”
Thursday’s events in Brussels were a signature Trump spectacle, with other presidents and prime ministers cast as bit players in his drama. Trump was unpredictable and unreliable. He was direct and at moments crass with the United States’ historical partners, vague on substance and misleading with facts and figures. He grabbed the spotlight for himself, sending the entire Western alliance scrambling to satisfy his whims and desires — “whiplash,” as one attending diplomat put it.
And he declared unprecedented victory, though his partners said little new had actually been agreed upon.
NATO member nations committed in 2014 to each spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense by 2024. Trump claimed, without specificity, that he had secured newly accelerated spending increases from allies, but the leaders of France and Italy said the preexisting pledges had not changed.
“This epitomizes his approach to diplomacy, which is on again, off again, give a little and take a lot,” said Douglas Lute, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “Complete unpredictability. I suppose he thinks he generates some kind of leverage, but he actually imparts uncertainty and doubt. His impact on the alliance is quite severe.”
Several officials who had been in the room when Trump amped up the temperature appeared physically exhausted afterward. One let out a full-body shudder. Another, a long, nervous belly laugh.
In Thursday’s session, as Trump commandeered the conversation, he berated and harassed individual leaders over defense spending. He had figures at the ready, indicating his assault was orchestrated. And, in comments open to interpretation, Trump told his counterparts that if they did not meet their 2 percent targets by January he would “do his own thing,” according to two officials briefed on the meeting.
At one point, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tried to calm his tirade and promote unity within the alliance, but Trump snapped.
“No, we are not playing this game,” Trump said, according to one official who was present. “Other presidents have done this, but I’m not going to.”
Predictably, Trump’s moves sparked dismay within the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the president’s performance “disappointing, yet ultimately unsurprising.”
“There is little use in parsing the president’s misstatements and bluster, except to say that they are the words of one man,” McCain said in a statement.
Trump sees his disruption abroad as a political benefit at home, administration officials said. As he departed Brussels and scrolled through Twitter, read headlines and watched U.S. cable news coverage, Trump saw an upside: The president was depicted as fighting for the United States and knocking heads in Old Europe. For Trump, his advisers said, there is no benefit to traveling overseas and playing nice.
So when on Wednesday he excoriated Germany for being “captive” to Russia and abruptly called on NATO countries to double their defense-spending commitments to 4 percent of GDP, and then on Thursday sent leaders into an emergency session, Trump’s mind was as much focused on his supporters at his “Make America Great Again” campaign rallies as on any bureaucrat in the gleaming glassand-steel NATO headquarters.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, compared Trump’s actions at NATO to his decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
“It’s like with Jerusalem,” Conway said. “You have decades of presidents — right, left and center — talking this way and gently pushing for 2 percent. You’ve got this president doing something about it.”