NATO Summit: The Important Issues

    Paul R. Pillar

    Security, Europe

    U.S. President Donald Trump addresses a joint news conference with Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., April 30, 2018.

    “If there is a persuasive case for NATO’s continued existence, it does not depend primarily on levels of military spending.” 

    Most press coverage of the NATO summit meeting was about Donald Trump’s political theater, for which NATO itself was merely a backdrop.  Journalists who said their heads were spinning after hearing Trump’s everything-is-fine press conference at the conclusion of the meeting, which sounded like a 180-degree reversal from his insults and threats of the day before, could have saved themselves a headache by realizing that there is no way to make diplomatic sense of any of this.  It was just Trump doing one of his usual things. That thing is to bemoan how supposedly awful was the state of affairs before he came along, to use his own disruptive rhetoric—sprinkled with falsehoods—to create a crisis atmosphere, and then later to claim that he resolved problems that none of his predecessors had been able to resolve.  The claim is made even if nothing material was achieved—as is true regarding military spending by NATO members, who do not appear to have made new commitments beyond what they had already made pre-Trump.  In these respects, the Trumpian theater in Brussels is similar to the one surrounding the summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un.

    Some of Trump’s themes in the insults-and-threats phase of this performance, and especially his bashing of Germany, served specific political purposes back home.  The hyping of dangers from immigration in Europe dovetails, of course, with his exploitation of the immigration issue in the United States, an issue that, as Trump accurately remarked at the press conference, had helped to elect him.  Trump’s charge that Germany is “totally controlled” by Russia (supposedly because of trade in natural gas) is an example of the familiar Trump technique of accusing others of the very transgressions about which he is politically vulnerable.

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