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.
Meanwhile, the entire performance achieved Trump’s objective of seizing media attention and setting the agenda of public discussion. The motivation for the performance had little to do with issues of diplomacy, the state of the North Atlantic alliance, or national security. The chief intended audience was his political base back home, in addition to his own ego.
Looking beyond the political theater, however, there are important unresolved questions about NATO, its role and purpose today, and its place in advancing U.S. interests. The questions never were adequately addressed in the early 1990s, that historical turning point when the Cold War ended, Germany was reunited, and Western leaders decided that NATO would not go the way of the Warsaw Pact and dissolve, but instead would endure and expand.
Trump’s success in setting the agenda made the issue of military spending by the allies—dovetailing with another of Trump’s campaign themes, the idea of foreigners free-riding on the back of the United States—sound as if it were the single, overriding measure of the health of NATO. But that raises the question: exactly what difference would military spending—at two, four, or any other percent of GDP—make to the security of either Europe or the United States? Amid all the attention the past couple of days to spending levels, the near-silence on this fundamental question was deafening.
The nightmare scenario during the Cold War was of Red Army tank divisions, from a starting point in East Germany, pouring through the Fulda Gap in an invasion of the West. Back then, the different levels of Western military spending by West Germany and other European allies might have made a major difference in the strength of NATO’s defense against such an assault, and thereby potentially a decisive difference in whether such an attack would be deterred and, if not deterred, defeated. But the today the strategic map of Europe looks far different. Russian troops have repaired to Russian territory, hundreds of miles to the east.
The territories of current NATO members most vulnerable to a Russian attack are the Baltic republics. It is hard to envision how, say, an immediate increase in Germany’s military spending to two percent of GDP would make a meaningful change in that vulnerability. Presumably any difference would rest on convincing the Russians that a wider European war—touched off by the tripwire of small NATO forces in the Baltic republics—would be costlier than it otherwise would be. But the credibility of such deterrence involves the same uncertainties about will, and not just capabilities, that the eastward expansion of NATO always has entailed. Would German decision-makers be willing, in an effort to save Riga, to respond in a way that would endanger Berlin?
Where Russia has used military force outside its boundaries, in Ukraine and Georgia, such uncertainties are all the greater. The willingness to take risks to save Tbilisi are no greater than with Riga. Such uncertainty was a good reason the idea of signing up Ukraine and Georgia to the North Atlantic Treaty did not gain traction. When the topic of Russia’s seizure of Crimea came up in Trump’s press conference, he hastened to blame Barack Obama and to claim that if he had been president, “I wouldn’t have let it happen.” He gave no hint of how he would have done so, and it is a safe bet that he doesn’t have the faintest idea how he would have prevented the annexation.