Opinion: A NATO summit in Donald Trump's parallel universe

The United States did not break from NATO, but President Donald Trump sent wildly conflicting messages at the Brussels summit. The uncertainty over the future of the alliance still remains, says DW's Barbara Wesel.
Barbara Wesel
Barbara Wesel

It's worth taking a close look at US President Donald Trump's behavior at the NATO summit.

Over breakfast, the US president was unrestrained in his criticism of Germany, saying the country was reliant on Russian gas imports and citing some false figures along the way. During the plenary session, he suddenly called on fellow alliance members to spend 4 percent of GDP on defense, rather than the agreed-upon 2 percent. Shortly thereafter, he raised the prospect of a bilateral meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel over German cars, migration and Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the two had a "good relationship." One hour later, on the way to dinner, he took the gloves off once more and fired off another tweet critical of Germany and NATO.

Trump's political roller coaster ride

The conflicting messages from Trump, sent within the span of just one day, don't resemble anything close to normal diplomatic discourse from a US president. Trump handled the meeting of the most important Western military alliance as though he was playing the hero and the antagonist in a theater performance. First, he criticized Germany, then, just hours later, he sent the chancellor greetings from his family. It's difficult to not describe such scenes in psychiatric terms.

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Barbara Wesel is DW's correspondent in Brussels

But that wasn't enough. After the end of official talks, Trump sent his next tweet, slamming Germany's reliance on Russian gas imports and linking them to NATO — the same way he ties trade deficits to US national security. Finally, he demanded alliance members spend 2 percent of GDP on defense immediately, not in 2024 as planned.

The whole affair gave the impression that Trump fails to understand that NATO is not like one of his country clubs where members pay dues. There is no community fund. Every country pays for its own defense and provides the military capabilities that the alliance requires. But Trump lives in his own world and behaves like a mafia boss going from door to door collecting protection money with threats of violence.

NATO is an alliance, not a private security firm

Trump's moodiness, along with his unpredictability and often-treacherous behavior towards his allies, makes clear that he views military security as a commodity that can be sold. He apparently would like to be paid for stationing US troops in Europe and providing weapons on NATO's eastern border. "Allies" is the wrong word to use in this context as the concept seems foreign to him. Trump only understands negotiating partners and the money in his coffers. He sees himself in a global struggle for power, and it does not matter if the weak get thrown under the bus. It's understandable that the Baltic states and Norway were deeply unsettled by Trump's statements.

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DW News | 11.07.2018

Merkel: 'We determine our policies independently'

Trump did refrain from directly questioning NATO's purpose or tearing up a joint communique, as he did during the G7 summit, so fears of the US president unilaterally bringing the alliance to an apocalyptic end were avoided. But there is little reason to feel reassured. Everything could change tomorrow.

Deep uncertainty remains

Trump's political roller coaster ride has left a deep impression on the other NATO members. They are beginning to realize what he really thinks of his Western allies. Values, tradition and common history carry no meaning for this US president. With a single tweet, he can renege on his promises at any time, or extort with punitive economic measures, as he is doing with German car exports.

Read more: Ex-US NATO commander Breedlove: 'We need more force in Europe, not less'

With his unpredictable approach to politics, Trump demonstrated, once again, that he is doing his best to break the global system of treaties and alliances. It simply seems too soon for him to turn his back on NATO. But that doesn't mean it won't happen. Whether it is the World Trade Organization or the United Nations, Trump wants to replace international organizations with bilateral deals he thinks he can negotiate to benefit the US. What's left is the horror over the direction the US government is headed and the deep uncertainty shared by its allies who have, up to now, been supportive.

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