President Donald Trump’s approach to the NATO Summit last week was widely criticized. Yet, watching the meeting from afar in Warsaw – Warsaw, Missouri (population 2,127) – I had to wonder whether the president’s critics weren’t again getting exercised over his style at the expense of understanding the substance.
Residents of Warsaw, several hours southeast of Kansas City (in a county where almost 75 percent of people voted for Mr. Trump) don’t much care about the finger wagging at the president, just like most of the American heartland that overwhelmingly supported him. They don’t care about the naysayers on Twitter who take great joy in claiming that the upward trend on NATO spending began after Russia’s 2014 invasion, and not in response to President Trump’s hectoring. What they do care about is that they finally have a president fighting for something they believe in – burden-sharing.
Mr. Trump’s supporters aren’t by nature skeptical of the US’s friends. Polls continue to show broad bipartisan support of NATO and most major US allies. It’s not even clear that the president’s trade war is perceived as smart by many of his supporters. They are certainly exercised about economic exploitation by China, but perhaps less so about picking a fight with many of the European countries that invest in and employ people in their communities.
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Neither are they necessarily supportive of everything the president says and does, such as his handling of this week’s press conference in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his apparent denigration of the FBI and American intelligence agencies.
But Mr. Trump’s supporters are increasingly wary of allies that don’t pay their fair share, or shoulder their part of the burden. After almost 17 years of the war on terror, and with no end in sight, that’s not an unrealistic expectation. Trump supporters come from many of the states that have paid the greatest cost during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the fight against ISIS. The president glosses over the fact that allies such as Germany have deployed forces to Afghanistan and provide strategic bases. What average Americans see are US allies who are often not even willing to put their own young men and women on the front lines or spend their own wealth. That rankles.
That’s why Mr. Trump’s rhetoric in Brussels is perceived as a victory in many parts of the United States. After decades of leaders asking politely and receiving little in return, Mr. Trump is finally delivering results, even if he does inflate the numbers.
What damage will be done to NATO in the process? That’s not a question most Americans are worried about. Despite what leading Democrats Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi seem to think, US elections are not going to be won or lost because of the way Mr. Trump treats allies. It is a question, however, for Europeans to think long and hard about, particularly Germany. It is not “totally controlled by Russia,” as Mr. Trump claims, but there is a kernel of truth underlying his assertions.
Germany has been playing a double game regarding Russia since its invasion of Ukraine in 2014. To her credit, Chancellor Angela Merkel has done much to bring successive coalitions and the German business community toward a tougher stance. But the fact remains that German business and many politicians would be happy to relax sanctions and pursue better relations with Mr. Putin’s regime, just as Mr. Trump is mistakenly trying to do. It is only as a result of sustained bipartisan pressure from the United States that a sanctions regime was instituted after 2014 and has been in place since.
At the Munich Security Conference earlier this year, much of the talk from representatives of the German business community was how ridiculously paranoid Democrats and Republicans in Congress were about Mr. Putin and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “Don’t they understand we need to engage Russia?” was the constant refrain, along with high-minded complaints about Western actions that have supposedly provoked Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fretting about Mr. Trump’s own inclinations toward Mr. Putin, yet treating Nord Stream 2 as a strategic priority, is the height of hypocrisy. Yet it is a common occurrence in Berlin.
The question for European allies in the wake of the NATO summit should be not how much damage was done by Mr. Trump, but what can be done to convince an increasingly skeptical American public that they are worthwhile partners? A recent poll found that American views of Germany were increasingly tied to partisan identification. The crowd at a recent Trump rally in Michigan booed his mention of Ms. Merkel, for example.
When five, 10, or 15 years from now, facing the next iteration of ISIS or some similar terrorist group or renewed fighting in Syria, and with a post-Trump America not willing to come to Europe’s defense (just as Barack Obama was not willing to do in Syria), what will Germany do?
How will Ms. Merkel’s successor respond to a conflict on Europe’s doorstep that could lead to terrorist threats on the streets of Berlin, Cologne or Hamburg? Germany cannot afford to hide behind the United States, France and other more expeditionary allies forever.
Whether Germany, Europe’s largest economy and yet in many respects its security laggard, will have the military capabilities to contribute in an era of American disengagement, let alone the political will to do so, is the fundamental question facing what has until now been the world’s most successful military alliance. Not the rantings of Donald Trump.
Future German leaders may end up thanking him for at least alerting them to the fact that their post-Cold War holiday from history is over. It’s certainly over in Warsaw, Missouri.
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