Editor’s Note: Nick Paton Walsh is a senior international correspondent for CNN International. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
The problem with creating a spectacle is you can forget that it might actually mean something.
US President Donald Trump’s opening salvo against the US’s NATO allies comes at an extraordinarily sensitive time in the alliance’s history. Not since the end of the Cold War has European security been quite so troubled by a resurgent Russia, and, even in the Cold War, NATO unity was never in question – let alone being undermined by its founder, the United States.
But Trump began his meeting with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg by wielding the wrecking ball of mistruth that we have become so accustomed to.
Germany is not held “captive” by Russia because of its admittedly large imports of Russian gas. Angela Merkel led the European response over the invasion of Crimea by Russia in 2014, and is reducing Germany’s estimated 60% reliance on Russian imported gas, seeking other sources of imports.
Trump omits the key detail that the pipeline was hatched in the early 2000s, when Russia was less of a threat and squabbles with its neighbor Ukraine were causing the transit of gas to central Europe to look risky. Back then it was a logical idea to Berlin, and even now Russia is unlikely to suddenly cut off gas supplies to Germany, as it badly needs the revenue.
Yet this is the kernel of the Trump strategy at play: to seize upon a partial fact, remove its context and then woefully exaggerate its consequences. He does the same when it comes to NATO spending.
Yes, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – twice – shone an ugly spotlight on the appalling lack of readiness of some of Europe’s armed forces. Barack Obama pointed that out.
That lack of readiness is changing, albeit slowly. Even in its newest defense budget, Germany still spends about as much as the US does on healthcare for its troops ($45 billion).
There are also valid concerns about the arms race that would be sparked on the European mainland were Germany suddenly to spend tens of billions of euros more on infrastructure in the year or two ahead, as it’s goaded to do by the Trump White House. How would Moscow react to that?
But comparing a country whose defense budget dwarfs those of the next five highest spenders combined – the USA – with its NATO allies, misses part of the point. Not all of the US expenditure guarantees European security.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies has measured US spending on European security as between $30 billion in 2017 and $36 billion in 2018, just over 5% of its total expenditure. The rest of NATO combined spends about eight times that on its European security – $239.1 billion, says the IISS.
Portraying NATO as being solely about European security – as Trump did with his Germany comments – omits why NATO was founded by the US. The alliance helped guarantee US dominance over the Soviet Union in the Cold War and in the globalized world afterward. But it also has the collective security guarantee of Article 5, under which an attack on one member can be declared an attack on all. Only one country has called upon that clause in its history, and that is the United States following the terror attacks on September 11, 2001.
In short, NATO helped secure three decades of US global military domination. And if you want to leave NATO, by the way, you have to, under Article 13 of its constitution: inform the US.
Global military domination helps the US remain the sole hyperpower, have the world’s reserve currency and run a huge current-account deficit. Nobody really wants to mess with them, even with this guy in charge.
Trump’s reductive and distorted misuse of facts and flawed logic come also at a time when the NATO allies need exactly the opposite. They badly need assurances. Anxiety – if not panic – about Russian forces is at a high, from the Artic Circle to the Black Sea. The further south you go, the worse it gets.
Norway has just asked for the US to double the number of US marines stationed there (to about six hundred), as their concerns about the risk of Russian snap attacks mount.
Finland has asked for large-scale US-led military exercises on its borders in the 18 months ahead. The Baltic states routinely have NATO allies stage readiness war games along their border.
Strategists now often talk about the previously unknown “Suwalki gap” – the land between Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad that strategic planners fear could be taken by a lighting Russian assault, cutting off the Baltic states from their NATO allies to the West.
Belarus is nervous enough to be making friendly noises toward the EU, and it’s not even in NATO. Ukraine is in a slow, nasty proxy war with Russia. And Georgia was in an open shooting war barely a decade ago.
It is clear who the threat – or the “competitor,” as Trump would have it – is. And through all this, Trump says his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki may be the easiest one on his tour.
The wrecking ball he wielded in his opening comments in Brussels – clearly planned words his White House and personal social-media accounts echoed and repeated minutes later – could leave the trust and unity at the heart of the West in ruins before he even gets to Finland.