UPDATE 815AM EDT: I see Reuters has reported that “Trump says that NATO allies have committed to raising defense spending beyond 2 percent of GDP.” This reporting validates everything I write here.
We have a lot of new reports coming out of the NATO summit this morning. And I am still trying to unpack where US President Trump is headed with his performance in Brussels. I am still very much of the opinion that his moves are calculated bluster because unpredictability is central to his “Art of the Deal” strategy.
It is clear that he wants to torpedo the Nord Stream 2 deal as I wrote yesterday. But, beyond that, everything is still speculative. Here are my thoughts though.
Some reporting on Nord Stream 2
Here’s what Politico is reporting today about the EU view of the Russian gas pipeline deal and what Trump said yesterday:
In recent days, European Council President Donald Tusk repeated his own criticism and opposition to the Nord Stream 2 project, which Germany and other supporters, including Putin, have defended as a commercial project with no political subtext.
”My personal view on this matter is, I hope, well-known: Nord Stream 2 is a mistake and will not serve the best European interests. It is against our strategic interests, our security, also our rules,” Tusk said at a news conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday morning.
Trump, in his remarks, called out Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s former chancellor, for his involvement in the pipeline project.
“It should have never been allowed to have happened,” Trump said. “But Germany is totally controlled by Russia. Because they’ll be getting 60 to 70 percent of their energy from Russia and a new pipeline … I think it’s a very bad thing for NATO and I don’t think it should have happened, and I think we have to talk to Germany about it.”
The Nord Stream 2 project — a planned gas pipeline from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea that is meant to add 55 billion cubic meters of gas to the existing route — has provoked pushback from Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the European Commission, over concerns that it would tighten Russian-owned Gazprom’s grip on a region traditionally highly dependent on Russian gas.
Brussels worries that the new pipeline would give Gazprom a stronger position in the EU’s gas market, undermining the Commission’s energy union project, which is aimed at diversifying the bloc’s gas supplies and cutting reliance on Russia.
The issue is one on which “allies disagree,” Stoltenberg acknowledged. But he reminded the president that “despite differences,” NATO is about uniting around “to protect and defend each other.”
In attacking Germany over the gas pipeline project, Trump was also making a potentially dangerous link between security and defense issues and economic disputes. Before leaving Washington on Tuesday, Trump criticized NATO and EU allies simultaneously over military spending and on trade.
Stoltenberg, in particular, has sought to separate those two issues, in a bid to keep the alliance unified in its military mission and to protect it from the much more complex trade discussion.
I think it’s clear that Trump is trying to get Nord Stream 2 undone. This is not pro-Putin or pro-Russia. It’s the opposite. Trump is trying to get a deal nixed that Obama also wanted nixed and that allegedly makes Europe more dependent on Russian natural gas. So you can discount all of the media views you see touting Trump’s alleged fealty to Russia.
I don’t like that Trump has tied defense spending and energy dependence together and is attacking an ally so publicly. But he is not doing so out of a desire to divide NATO and embolden Russia.
Does Trump really want NATO to spend 4% on defense?
What good is NATO if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy? Why are there only 5 out of 29 countries that have met their commitment? The U.S. is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on Trade. Must pay 2% of GDP IMMEDIATELY, not by 2025.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 11, 2018
Here’s the key statement being reported this morning:
Trump warns NATO allies if they didn’t immediately meet the 2% goal, “I’ll do my own thing” https://t.co/qnQZhvmpcu
— Edward Harrison (@edwardnh) July 12, 2018
I think the 4% stuff is just a negotiating tactic. As I wrote yesterday, Trump’s real goal is to push up the timetable for when NATO countries spend 2% on defense. And, of course, when they spend that 2%, much of it will be spent on American military hardware. That’s Trump’s calculus.
What does “I’ll do my own thing” mean? It’s not clear. It’s an empty threat in my view. But some are taking it as Trump’s signalling he is willing to pull the US out of NATO if the Europeans don’t spend more on defense.
Here’s more from the Wall Street Journal article linked in the tweet:
In a tense meeting expected to focus on Georgia and Ukraine, Mr. Trump swiftly changed the subject to military spending and warned allies that if they didn’t immediately meet the 2% goal, “I’ll do my own thing,” diplomats said. It was unclear to people in the room whether that was a threat to leave the alliance or to change the U.S. role in it.
In a lengthy tirade, Mr. Trump launched into a personal attack on Belgium and Germany’s military spending, according to one of the people familiar with the discussion. “I’m not happy,” he said, according to the person. He told allies that he wanted them to immediately meet the spending goal, or at least commit to a date now when they would do so.
The goal seems to be 2% now, not 4% later. And the tactic is bullying, singling out countries for rough treatment publicly to force his position through – and making people guess whether he is really committed to NATO.
Again, the unpredictability and the guessing is part of Trump’s strategy. He wants to leave people scratching their heads because he thinks being unpredictable gives him an advantage. The risk, of course, is that this is a very transactional approach that leaves the US with less committed allies.
Is Trump committed to NATO?
What’s the US commitment to NATO? That’s the big question all this brings up, isn’t it? No one knows. And that’s the way Trump wants it so that he can use US commitment as a threat to cajole NATO states into higher defense spending.
In public, Trump is an actor playing a role. And we can’t take what he says at face value. Look at what some of his NATO interlocutors said in the Politico article:
“Today he was very conciliatory,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė told POLITICO. “Around the table everything was fine.”
Asked about his take-down of Germany at breakfast, Grybauskaitė said, “Yeah, but it is outside the room.”
Then, after Trump had one-on-one meetings with Germany’s Merkel and France’s Macron, this was the view from Brussels:
President Donald Trump, hours after lashing out at Germany, said Wednesday that the United States has a “tremendous relationship“ with the country.
“We have a very, very good relationship with the chancellor, we have a tremendous relationship with Germany,” Trump said during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Brussels, adding that the two had a great meeting discussing military expenditure and trade.
Trump declared during a breakfast prior to the NATO summit that Germany is “totally controlled by Russia,” adding he thinks “it’s very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia, where you’re supposed to be guarding against Russia.”
The president was referencing a controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project.
Trump also praised Merkel for her “tremendous success” and predicted a trade increase.
“You have tremendous success and I congratulate you,“ he said to Merkel. “Tremendous success. And I believe that trade will increase and lots of other things will increase but we’ll see what happens over the next period of few months.”
Finally, after all was said and done, we heard:
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday that the United States’ commitment to NATO “remains very strong” after a summit in Brussels at which he said allies had made unprecedented commitments to increase spending on their own defense.
“NATO is much stronger now than it was two days ago,” Trump told reporters, describing an unscheduled crisis meeting of the 29 alliance leaders on Thursday morning as “fantastic” and having “a great collegial spirit”.
Trump got what he wanted
The change in tone is because Trump likely got specific commitments from Germany and France on spending. And he was satisfied with those commitments.
Look at what actually Trump said.
He said the US commitment to NATO “remains very strong,” meaning nothing that transpired in Brussels undermined the commitment despite his prior vacillation. He also said “NATO is much stronger now than it was two days ago,” suggesting something changed in the last two days. And that’s why he called the meeting “fantastic” and praised “a great collegial spirit”.
In Trump’s view, he has been very successful here. He came to Brussels with one goal in mind ahead of his meeting with Theresa May and Vladimir Putin — and that was getting NATO allies to commit to vastly increasing defense spending now, ASAP. And I believe he has done that.
If Trump did secure these commitments, expect the news to come out soon enough so that the Republicans can use it to bolster their party’s chances in the midterm elections in the US in November.