One thing is certain after the first formal speech of Donald Trump’s second trip to Europe as president: Polish-American relations are in great shape. Other close U.S. allies, like Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and South Korea might feel frustrated by their dealings with the new administration. Not the Polish government.
Warsaw appears to have followed a formula that emerged last month in Saudi Arabia. First, shower the president with praise just for showing up. Second, arrange a public event that puts him in the best possible light. And third, announce the purchase of American weapons during the visit. Thursday’s new twist was for Polish officials to deliver on a promise to bus in a rent-a-crowd to chant Trump’s name over and over again. While some viewers around the world might have recoiled at the contrived clapping and cheering, it probably went down well in Poland and among the large community of Polish-Americans in Middle America—and it certainly went over well in the West Wing.
In terms of substance, the good news is that the president finally and unequivocally endorsed the essence of NATO, the promise of collective defense contained in Article V of the NATO Treaty. After removing such an endorsement from a previous speech, this time Trump promised to consider an attack on one member as an attack on all. No doubt Polish officials and others in Eastern Europe, particularly the Baltic countries, breathed a sigh of long-awaited relief.
Par for the course with Trump, however, this long overdue pledge was accompanied by a detailed critique of those European countries he says have not met their “obligations” on defense spending. Here, Trump again demonstrated a stubborn refusal to learn basic foreign policy facts, as well as an unseemly habit of bragging about his “unbelievable” achievements, which are unbelievable because they did not happen. Not only are such claims demonstrably false, but the charges are also made at the expense of America’s closest friends and allies.
Defense spending is not part of the NATO Treaty. It is not an obligation. That doesn’t change the fact that European countries should devote more to defense, as every U.S. administration has strongly urged. Indeed, as a result of that previous pressure, all NATO countries have promised to make their best efforts to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense by 2020—not now or in the past, but over the coming years. In other words, the European countries, like France and Germany, who were on the receiving end of Trump’s latest critique are, in fact, not (yet) in violation of anything, not an obligation or even a political promise.
Again, European countries can and should do more. But to label them as in violation of their NATO obligations is considered a serious and offensive charge by European officials dedicated to international law, especially from a president who seems to forget about international human rights obligations when he is in conversation with serial violators of such obligations like the president of the Philippines or the president of Egypt. Ironically, it is the United States that is in arrears on real legal obligations, dues to the United Nations and U.N. peacekeeping operations, institutions that France and Germany take seriously and respect. Someday soon, some European diplomat is no doubt going to remind the world of these stubborn facts.
As far as Trump’s bragging, the reality is that Germany and other countries have been increasing defense spending in recent years, but not because of anything Trump has said or done. The growing spending in Europe is a direct result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the destabilizing and menacing policies it has adopted in the last five years, such as its own surge in defense spending; its revamping of conventional forces; its blatant violation of the 1987 INF Treaty by deploying a missile specifically banned by the treaty; its modernization of strategic nuclear forces on land and at sea; its dangerous intentional challenges to NATO operations at sea, on land and in the air; and, of course, its interference in democratic elections in the United States, France, and others in Europe. It is this rising Russian threat across the board that led to increases in defense spending, and those increases started well before Trump even became a candidate for president.
The real danger on the horizon is that Trump’s diplomacy of brag and bash is starting to take a toll on U.S. longterm security, as these repeated assaults on allies during these past six months are weakening bonds of friendship and trust that took decades to build in countries like Germany and South Korea.
Trump officials might think disrupting the status quo is a political plus. But this disruption diplomacy has reached dangerous proportions, and it reflects a fundamental lack of knowledge about what makes the United States so powerful and gives that power longterm stability. American global leadership has been so successful these past 70 years because it is based on worldwide alliances that are voluntary, alliances that are more stable than the empires created by the United Kingdom or Rome because they are not based on invasion, colonization or bribery. One of the incalculable advantages the United States now has in power politics is a result of alliances and basing rights that allow U.S. forces to be deployed all over the world—a capability China and Russia can only imagine.
Perhaps it is time for either Secretary of Defense James Mattis or national security adviser H.R. McMaster to familiarize the president with the words of a real conservative, the political philosopher Edmund Burke, who talked about how intentional disruption “will pull down more in half an hour than what prudence deliveration and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”
A time will come where the United States is in a crisis not of Trump’s making. North Korea comes to mind. It is at those times when the careful tending of friendships and alliances pay off. In such an event, President Trump might regret disruption diplomacy and blame not himself but those who enable him as he did it.