By Heather Conley and Jeffrey Rathke, Center for Strategic and International Studies
It was a tale of two visits: With no protesters in sight, President Donald Trump was feted in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, stressing that “We are not here to lecture” and challenging Arab and Muslim leaders to drive out terrorists and extremists, without highlighting the uncomfortable fact that many of those states have turned a blind eye to terrorist fundraising and recruitment.
With unusual and sustained discipline, the president won plaudits for adopting an approach that differed from his previous remarks on banning Muslims and expressed a hope for peace.
And then President Trump arrived in Belgium, and the discipline dissolved into simmering resentment and pettiness (exemplified by his shoving the prime minister of Montenegro out of the way to stand in front of the cameras). Standing at NATO headquarters with 28 democratically elected allies who have sent military forces to Afghanistan—where at least 1,000 allied soldiers lost their lives—and Iraq in support of the United States, President Trump needed to deliver a solemn and gracious message as NATO members stood to dedicate a memorial—twisted steel from the North Tower of the World Trade Center—to NATO’s Article 5 security commitment that an attack on one ally is an attack on all. He was unable to do it. Rather than reaffirming the U.S. security commitment to NATO, as every president since Harry Truman has done, he lectured our NATO allies that they “must finally contribute their share” because it was “not fair to the people and the taxpayers of the United States” and that “many of these nations owe massive amounts of money for past years.”
There are no past dues for a collective defense organization, unlike a country club or a condo association. Delivering such a message in public was both unnecessary and counterproductive. Cameras captured the discomfort and bemusement of many of the leaders at an event that was supposed to emphasize solidarity. In eight minutes, Mr. Trump also laid waste to the repeated messages of his vice president, secretary of defense, secretary of state, and national security adviser, who have spent the last few months publicly and privately reassuring NATO members that President Trump was on board. His public and private comments will make it harder, not easier, for some allied leaders to get more defense funding out of their parliaments.
It did not have to be this way. It is one thing to be “very, very direct” about the need for fair burden sharing; but Mr. Trump could have easily taken “the win” and acknowledged that Europe’s defense spending is now on the rise, increasing by 3.8 percent, or $6 billion in 2016, and is set to rise further. Encouragement accompanied by strong diplomacy—which seemed to work in Riyadh—is a wiser course than belittling and shaming.
President Trump also could have noted the deployment of 1,000 U.S. forces to Poland, as part of NATO’s strengthened defenses, and his administration’s request for $4.8 billion to strengthen European defense in Fiscal Year 2018, a significant increase of $1.4 billion over FY2017. That is the U.S. security guarantee in action and evidence of the United States’ enduring commitment to the collective defense promise of NATO. He could have challenged our allies to demonstrate that type of leadership in meeting their defense commitments, much as NATO allies responded to September 11.
We don’t know why Mr. Trump so negatively focuses on Europe and specifically NATO, an imperfect but successful alliance of countries that share U.S. values and interests. His resentment and disdain are not understood despite repeated European efforts to make this most essential relationship work no matter what.
What are the consequences if the president is unwilling to reaffirm the United States’ iron-clad commitment to Article 5? Although his aides and senior officials will scramble to tell us that he supports NATO, this disastrous visit, which was supposed to be pro forma, confirmed our fears. If this leadership will not come from the president, it must come from the American people. Members of Congress and a broad front of civic, religious, academic, and governmental leaders should affirm that institutions like NATO defend our democratic values, our prosperity, and our security.
Now that President Trump has returned the bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office, he might reflect on this Churchillian observation, “without victory, there is no survival.” And as Churchill knew all too well, without allies, there can be no victory.
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS Europe Program.