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Trump’s antics shouldn’t overshadow what he has accomplished in NATO

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So NATO’s leaders poked fun at Donald Trump. He deserved it. He has demeaned several of them, as well as the institution itself. But that does not mean that he did not accomplish anything at the London NATO summit, which his many detractors, particularly commentators who are officially or unofficially connected with one of his Democratic rivals, prefer to overlook.

To begin with, the president kept up the pressure for the NATO allies to increase their defense spending to 2 percent of their respective gross domestic products. Considering that few of his predecessors, much less a series of American secretaries of Defense, were unable to stop the post-Cold War slide in European defense spending, that is no mean accomplishment. 

Certainly, Vladimir Putin helped to energize several NATO states. Yet not all 29 members of the Alliance have seen a revanchist Russia as a direct threat to their interests, and some, such as Hungary and Turkey, have sufficiently warm relations with Moscow as to prompt considerable unease among the Baltic states and Poland in particular, for whom Russia looms as a constant menace. 

Nevertheless, neither the Hungarians nor the Turks have stood in the way of NATO sanctions being imposed on Russia. Nor did they block NATO’s plan to strengthen its increasingly credible deterrent in the Baltic region. Indeed, it is arguable that Trump, of all people, was the one who convinced his soul mate, the autocratic Recep Tayyib Erdogan, to accept a rather mealy-mouthed NATO endorsement of the Turkish leader’s claim that the Kurds are terrorists and to lift his hold on NATO’s approval of the Baltic defense plan.

Trump also might claim credit for NATO’s willingness at last to address China’s growing influence in Europe, including the threat that Huawei and its 5G capability pose to European security. It is Trump, after all, who had been trumpeting the threat that China poses not only to the United States, but to international stability. For years the Europeans have ignored China’s inroads into their territory; several, Greece for example, have positively welcomed Beijing as a deus ex machina for the country’s economic ills. Yet Greece did not stand in the way of NATO’s belated recognition that China could be a disruptive force in Europe.

None of the foregoing should diminish Trump’s uncanny ability to steal the limelight at NATO summits, usually by staging confrontations with allied leaders. This time around it was his childish spat with Justin Trudeau, who mocked him on an open mic, only to have the president call him two-faced. Trump’s meeting with Emmanuel Macron also did not go well, but that was probably because Macron surprised him with a tough stance on the state of NATO, which he continues to assert is “brain dead.” 

Trump also upstaged his 28 colleagues by holding excessively long encounters with the news media, who, despite the fact that most journalists appear to despise him, at the same time cannot get enough of him. Whatever else might be said about the man who now has been crowned as “disrupter in chief” — a title in which he no doubt revels — Trump certainly knows how to both steal any show and, at the same time, get much of what he wants.

Trump’s behavior at this latest summit, including his abrupt departure without the traditional post-summit press conference, coupled with Macron’s comments and Edrogan’s chumminess with Moscow, has led pundits to pronounce the organization’s slow death. This is not the first time NATO has dealt with an internal crisis that led many to predict its demise, however; nor will it be the last. It is certainly not very likely that, in the immediate future, the organization’s members would invoke Article 5 — which commits them to the common defense of their territories — as they did only once before, after 9/11. 

Nevertheless, just as NATO has survived seven decades of external threats and internal strife, so it will survive President Trump and his quarrelsome, high-handed behavior. As long as NATO continues to exist, so will its deterrent value. For Russia, or any other hostile state, would then have to calculate the risk that an attack on a member state would unite the other 28 in a robust defense. And a united NATO most certainly would impose serious costs that a would-be aggressor, especially Moscow, could ill-afford.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Donald Trump Emmanuel Macron European Union Justin Trudeau Kurds Military alliances NATO Russia Turkey Vladimir Putin

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