Opinion: Brace yourselves, NATO — Donald Trump is coming

NATO members are worried that US President Donald Trump could cause serious damage to the alliance. These are testing times for the trans-Atlantic relationship, DW's Bernd Riegert writes.
Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert

Donald Trump is bringing his show to Europe. And it is bound to make headlines. On Wednesday, the US president will be in Brussels for the NATO summit, where he will likely continue to ruffle feathers. Two days later, the president will meet Queen Elizabeth in England. And then, on July 16, Trump will travel to Finland to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, which could mark the beginning of a new, deep bond between the presidents.   

There is great anxiety at NATO about how the meeting will go. It is to be expected that Mr. "America First" will cause irritation among his allies for stressing defense-spending quotas. Though European members have raised their expenditures as promised, Trump remains dissatisfied. In a recent speech in the state of Indiana ahead of the US midterm elections in November, Trump made clear his anger about Germany in particular. He directly attacked Chancellor Angela Merkel, claiming that the United States pays for Germany's security, but receives little in return. And then he accused Germany of prioritizing energy deals with Russia and leaving the United States to foot the bill. Trump wants to change this. And he has already indirectly threatened to pull US troops from Germany if the country does not increase its defense spending. 

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Trump on NATO: A war of words

Even before taking office, US President Donald Trump's relationship with NATO has been a tumultuous one, to say the least. He has disparaged the trans-Atlantic alliance, once describing it as "obsolete" and a relic of the Cold War. Here are Trump's most memorable quotes about the military alliance, even if they are at times false.

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'Days of the Soviet Union'

While on the campaign trail in 2016, Trump made clear that he saw NATO as a relic of the Cold War. "You know, we're dealing with NATO from the days of the Soviet Union, which no longer exists. We need to either transition into terror or we need something else." But his remarks didn't account for how the alliance backed the US well after the collapse of the Soviet Union, especially in Afghanistan.

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'Germany owes vast sums'

Trump has made defense spending his main talking point on NATO. But he has falsely accused member states of owing money to Washington, saying: "Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO, and the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany." The problem is NATO doesn't work like that. No money is owed to the alliance for defense or otherwise.

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'Obsolete'

Days before his inauguration, Trump caught NATO members off guard when he claimed the alliance was "obsolete" and threatened to withdraw support. "I said a long time ago that NATO had problems: Number one, it was obsolete, because it was designed many, many years ago." Months later, he retracted his statement, citing changes within the alliance. "Now they fight terrorism," he said.

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'Doesn't sound very smart'

Trump had tended to lump trade between US allies with how much Washington spends on defense. "We are spending a fortune on military in order to lose $800 billion (in trade losses). That doesn't sound very smart to me," Trump said. The problem is that while NATO members have agreed to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense, the alliance has nothing to do with international trade.

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'We are the schmucks'

During a 2018 rally in Montana, Trump hit out at European allies, saying: "They want (us) to protect against Russia, and yet they pay billions of dollars to Russia, and we're the schmucks paying for the whole thing." Trump was referring to Russia as Europe's primary source for oil and natural gas, but he created a false dichotomy between energy reliance and NATO's defense spending goal.

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Montenegro 'may get aggressive and congratulations, you're in World War III"

In an interview with Fox News, Trump was asked why the US should jump the defense of NATO ally Montenegro in the event of an attack. The president said he'd asked himself the same question, appearing undermine the military alliance's collective defense clause. Trump went on to describe Montenegrins as a "very strong" and "very aggressive," and that that aggression risked starting World War III.

In the worst-case scenario, NATO diplomats reckon, the United States could demand that European members directly pay for US troops to be stationed on the continent: Cash for security. That would represent a radical break with the philosophy of NATO, an alliance built on shared political beliefs. But that is exactly what Trump appears to have in mind. He is always out to secure his advantage, and to do it he will stop at nothing; he will even affront long-term allies. This mentality has already manifested itself at the recent G7 summit in Canada. So, one can expect Trump to adopt a similarly uncompromising stance in Brussels on Wednesday. The European members will have to prepare for Trump attempting to tie trade issues to security policy. It is possible that he will threaten that "either you lift European import tariffs on US goods, or you lose the US nuclear deterrent against Russia."   

'Obsolete' to Trump

The president prefers the company of dictators and autocrats to that of trusted allies. But NATO will make it clear that ever more members have begun increasing their defense spending, edging toward the target of 2 percent of GDP. Germany's not there yet, and its military, the Bundeswehr, remains woefully underfunded. The scenario is similar for other armies across Europe. Merkel has no option but to acknowledge this fact — and Trump will gladly seize this opportunity to drum up domestic support ahead of the elections.   

Poland's Defense Ministry has suggested that it would be willing to pay $2 billion (€1.7 billion) a year to station additional US troops on its soil. That would be music to Trump's ears, and he may seek to establish similar deals with other NATO members. The alliance, however, can only hope that the president continues to stand by NATO's principle of mutual defense and does not make it conditional on his getting his way. After all, on the campaign trail just two years ago, Trump referred to NATO as "obsolete." That's a troubling prospect, given that so far no real progress has been made on establishing an EU-wide military alliance that could serve as an alternative to NATO. Creating such a force would take years, and it would not be able to match the US's military might.

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DW's Bernd Riegert

NATO diplomats, many of whom consider Russia a serious threat, are also concerned about Trump's meeting with Putin. Members hope to agree on a list of thorny issues that they expect Trump to raise with his counterpart. Among them are the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the issue of cyberwarfare. But nobody can predict what Trump will do in Helsinki. He claims to be well-prepared for the encounter. But what does that mean, exactly? Will he raise NATO's concerns with Putin? Or will he further alienate his allies?

One thing is certain: However Trump's meetings with NATO, the Queen and Putin turn out, the president will tell Americans that it was all a major success.

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The good, the bad and the ugly

US President Donald Trump has offered both candid praise and unabashed criticism of Germany and its policies. From calling German Chancellor Angela Merkel "possibly the greatest world leader" to describing her open-door refugee policy as a "catastrophic mistake," here are his most memorable quotes regarding Germany.

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'Greatest'

"Germany's like sitting back silent, collecting money and making a fortune with probably the greatest leader in the world today, Merkel," Trump said in a 2015 interview with US news magazine Time.

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'Very bad'

"The Germans are bad, very bad ... Look at the millions of cars they sell in the US. Terrible. We'll stop that," Trump said during a NATO leaders summit, according to German news magazine Der Spiegel, which cited sources at the alliance's meeting.

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'Something in common'

"As far as wiretapping, I guess, by - you know - [the Obama] administration, at least we have something in common, perhaps," Trump said in March during a press conference with Merkel. He was referring to his unproven allegations that ex-President Barack Obama tapped his phone. There was widespread anger in Germany in 2013 when it was revealed the US National Security Agency tapped Merkel's phone.

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'Illegals'

"I think she made one very catastrophic mistake and that was taking all of these illegals (sic), you know taking all of the people from wherever they come from," Trump said in a joint interview published by German daily Bild and British newspaper The Times, referring to Merkel's open-door policy for refugees fleeing war and persecution.

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'Germany owes vast sums of money'

"Despite what you have heard from the fake news, I had a great meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO and the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany," Trump said in a two-tweet statement after meeting with Merkel for the first time in March 2017.

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'Turning their backs'

"The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition," Trump tweeted in the midst of a row within the German goverment. He went on to claim that: "Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!"

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