After many weeks of claiming, dishonestly, that European allies “owe us a tremendous amount of money for many years back” — in fact, Europeans spend far more money on European defense than does the United States — and after referring to NATO members as “delinquent” and worse, President Trump appears to have handed America’s European allies an ultimatum Thursday: Pay up, spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on the military, do it fast — or the United States will pull out. We can “go it alone,” he told them, by some accounts.
During the news conference he gave afterward, Trump even claimed Europeans had caved in to his demands: They had agreed to reach the 2 percent target faster, he said, and they could possibly increase it to 4 percent in the future. This claim was immediately disputed by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who pointed to the summit statement, which says nothing of the sort. The NATO secretary-general evaded the 4 percent question. The British and German leaders canceled planned news conferences altogether.
And no wonder: It isn’t easy to know what to say. For the question now facing America’s allies in Europe is both fundamental and unanswerable. It is this: Are Trump’s threats, as well as the lies and hyperbole that accompany them, just tactics intended to strengthen the Western alliance? Or does Trump actually want the alliance to die?
If the former is true, then the allies should probably take Trump’s demands seriously. They should ignore his bluster, turn the other cheek, let him take credit for spending targets set by the Obama administration and move on. Given the genuine threats of Russian aggression from the east, as well as the terrorism threat from the south, the long-standing U.S. demand for Europe to spend more is valid. Many European nations clearly should invest more in hard military power. Europeans need the United States to stay in Europe. On the ground, the alliance is healthier and more cooperative than it has ever been. If America’s allies have to listen to Trump dissembling a few times a year — if they have to let him take credit for resolving fake crises — then maybe that’s a price they should pay.
But what if Trump is playing a different game altogether? Remember, Trump has been calling NATO a waste of money for decades. “America has no vital interest” in Europe, he wrote in 2000: “Their conflicts are not worth American lives. Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually. The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous. And these are clearly funds that can be put to better use.” During his election campaign, he refused to reaffirm any commitment to NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee. During his first NATO summit last year, he again refused to reaffirm Article 5, though an administration official had promised he would. He has repeatedly gone out of his way to insult NATO allies, including the British prime minister as well as the German chancellor, even accusing Angela Merkel — in what looks like a classic case of projection, in advance of his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin — of allowing Germany to be “controlled” by Russia.
But if Trump’s game is to destabilize and undermine the Western alliance, and possibly even to break it up, then it would be a great mistake for Europeans to turn the other cheek. Instead, they should actively lobby those in Congress and at the Pentagon who support them. They should probably prepare alternatives, such as an immediate agreement on new, all-European military structures, including a European army. They should increase their spending, with an eye toward putting together their own command and control systems. They should think about responses to American blackmail, because if Trump wants to play off trade against security, then Europe, as the United States’ biggest trading partner, is in a good position to bargain. U.S. companies have privileges in Europe that they don’t enjoy in China or Russia. That could change.
Such an outcome would, of course, be very bad for everyone. We would all be poorer and less safe. Europeans would certainly have to invest far more in defense than even Trump suggests; the long-standing assumption that no Europeans other than Britain and France will obtain nuclear weapons might be revisited; the peace of central Europe would be threatened. The United States’ own ability to project power into the Middle East and Asia from its lost European bases would be markedly diminished. All this, of course, is why Russian media is gushing excitedly about this dispute.
But Trump is becoming more radical, and more rude, with every European summit. If his real intention is to smash the Western alliance, then the dangers will be even greater if Europeans don’t draw the right conclusions in time.
Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist, covering national politics and foreign policy, with a special focus on Europe and Russia. She is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a professor of practice at the London School of Economics. She is a former member of The Washington Post's editorial board.