PARIS — The explosion was almost instantaneous—over breakfast, no less—at the beginning of this year’s NATO summit in Brussels. With cameras switched on, and no question they were recording, Donald Trump told his Atlantic Alliance counterparts that Germany is “totally controlled by Russia.”
Berlin buys from Moscow more and more of the natural gas it uses. So, in one of his trademark versions of common sense, which commonly ignores basic history and fundamental facts, Trump asked why the U.S. should spend a lot of money to defend Germany from Russia if Germany was dependent on Russia for energy. Trump incorrectly inflated Germany’s reliance on Russian energy to convey, yet again, a picture of NATO as a protection racket and the U.S. demanding its envelope of cash be heavier.
What was surprising here to many Europeans was not the issue of Germany’s energy supplies or defense budget, which ought to be discussed, but the way it was raised, quite consciously, to be as rude and offensive as possible to America’s richest and most powerful ally on the continent. This after Trump turned the meeting last month in Canada of the G7 most economically advanced democracies into an acrimonious debacle. (He not only insulted German Chancellor Angela Merkel there, he threw a Starburst candy at her.)
If the trend continues, NATO officials present and past worried they may never be able to pick up the pieces.
“The mood here is mix of concern, disappointment, anger and disgust,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who until October led the U.S. Army’s European contingent and who attended the NATO summit.
"I expected bad, and I kept telling people to expect bad, but it is still surreal to see,” one current NATO official told The Daily Beast. “Everyone is in disbelief, worried [NATO’s] credibility is shot, bracing for what comes out of the private sessions—this thing is just getting started and we still have to make it through the substantive sessions, which will be long and boring. We definitely know we're going to have to do clean-up; we just don't know the extent of the damage or whether anyone will take us seriously. And there is still the UK trip and the Helsinki trip, which will color everything here." (Trump is headed to England and Scotland before his July 16 summit with Vladimir Putin in Finland.)
Many influential Europeans have concluded, grimly, that “clean-up” simply will not be possible.
In the days leading up to the NATO summit in Brussels, the alliance’s senior civilian leader, Jens Stoltenberg, told interlocutors that one of his major concerns was not just disunity in the 70-year-old transatlantic alliance, but factionalism within it. As illiberalism spreads across Europe, NATO has to work hard to avoid being divided into camps—with the increasingly authoritarian Trump, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban representing one pole, and the traditional, liberal Theresa May of the U.K., Angela Merkel of Germany, Justin Trudeau of Canada, and Emmanuel Macron of France representing the other.
“There is clearly a growing trend within NATO where some allies are becoming more authoritarian. It certainly applies to Turkey and to Hungary. To a certain extent it applies to Poland,” said Mike Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense under President Barack Obama. “It’s unfortunate that this administration instead of promoting democracy abroad has instead chosen to praise authoritarians for their dictatorial style.”
That the degradation of the Atlantic Alliance and destruction of European unity is essentially the same goal cherished by Russian President Vladimir Putin escapes no one.
“These summits really have only one deliverable: the one thing that must be delivered is unity,” Doug Lute, U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2013 to 2017, told The Daily Beast. “Anything that erodes unity, like these early shots at Germany, is very destructive, and an opening for anyone whose aim is to divide the alliance, like Vladimir Putin. Russia has a long term strategic goal of dividing NATO. We shouldn’t help, shouldn’t assist, in Putin achieving that goal.”
François Heisbourg, one of the continent’s most respected defense analysts, noted that Trump has been dissing NATO for decades, but now as president his views count. And Heisbourg’s numerous sources tell him that the G7 meeting last month was, behind the scenes, even worse than most headlines made it seem, Trump talked about the E.U. essentially as a rival rather like China, only weaker, and in private as as well as public likened NATO to NAFTA: by his lights a bad deal for America.
“Trump has a vision of the world in which everything is bilateral and the United States can monetize its power,” said Heisbourg. “Turning NATO into a protection racket, that is the best fate that he promises us.”
The great difference between Trump and his Russian counterpart, Heisbourg said, is that “Trump’s tactics are dreadful, whereas Putin’s tend to be exquisite.”
That the NATO Summit declaration talked tough about Russia is not a great revelation. Trump, master of negotiations that he believes himself to be, certainly can understand going into the Helsinki summit that he is in a stronger position backed by a declaration of NATO unity than he would be without it.
But both Trump and Putin know such declarations depend on the good will behind them, and that is missing.
Carpenter told the Daily Beast, “It’s incredibly counterproductive for [Trump] to go about trashing allies in this manner in a meeting publicly with the secretary general [of NATO].”
“Now that Trump is so politically toxic in Europe and despised across Europe, whatever he says now has the opposite impact,” says Carpenter. “I understand and agree that the Nord Stream II pipeline [increasing Berlin’s supply of Russian natural gas] is a strategic mistake that makes Germany very dependent on Russia,” said Carpenter. “But when Trump criticizes Germany very publicly in this way, it does not achieve any goal to prevent the pipeline from coming into being and just serves to create greater divisions within the alliance.”
While Trump’s claim that many NATO allies owe the United States money for their shortfall in defense spending is factually inaccurate—each country commits to spending a portion of its national budget on defense, but the United States does not make up any shortfall—the U.S. president has put his finger on some actual issues of concern, said Philipp Liesenhoff, an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
“There is a German saying that goes, ‘A blind chicken finds corn once in a while,’” said Liesenhoff. “He has found some corn.”
The concern about the Nord Stream II pipeline, a major energy deal with Russia that would bring natural gas from Russia to Germany—which prompted Trump’s comment this morning that Germany is a “captive of Russia”—is not entirely misplaced. Merkel presented the natural gas pipeline as a “purely economic project,” said Liesenhoff, but that ignores the obvious geopolitical factors. And the German government consistently refused to discuss the geopolitical risks of a Russia-sponsored gas pipeline with its European partners. “You couldn’t have managed this much worse than Germany did,” said Liesenhoff.
But Trump himself has similarly fumbled his attempts to raise this issue in a way that builds trust. In particular, his insistence that Germany import U.S. liquefied gas as an alternative to Russian natural gas has led many Germans to doubt Trump’s sincerity and motives.
“Trump’s own motivation and his assessment of the problem is quite unclear,” said Liesenhoff. When the U.S. president lambasts NATO allies, “it’s clear that he often enough doesn’t know the details and doesn’t know the systems behind it.”
European Council President Donald Tusk may have summed up the situation most succinctly the day before the NATO summit began. “Dear America,” he tweeted, “appreciate your allies. After all you don’t have that many.”
Whatever illusions existed about Trump’s desire to shatter old alliances, however much some of his aides or members of his cabinet like Defense Secretary James Mattis may see the value in keeping them, however often Sarah Sanders tries to tell the world the U.S. position supporting NATO’s mutual defense commitments has not changed, and however much the Senate wants to reiterate that point as it did just this week by a vote of 97 to 2, what frightens Europeans most is that Trump really may not care.
“There’s no question that the relationship is in trouble,” said Rachel Rizzo, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, from Brussels. “We’re obviously in a time of turmoil. Trump’s views on Europe have never been a secret. He’s been hostile towards our European allies since he entered office. So it’s something that those people who are in the trenches, working at ministries of foreign affairs, ministries of defense that are dedicated to this relationship, they have to work to make sure it survives.”
It doesn’t even mean much that the summit declaration is essentially a reiteration of the old status quo. Europeans have learned Trump will approve and disapprove declarations as he sees fit. Trump is going to be Trump, and the rest of the world—and especially what’s left of a united Europe—be damned.
“There is no political penalty for him,” said François Heisbourg. “This is the United States of America. This is the country that elected Trump as president. I know that most of us would prefer this were not the case but we have to live with it.” Heisbourg and others have very little faith in the U.S. electorate to curb Trump’s power in the upcoming midterm elections, or vote him out of office in 2020.
“Where does this take us, it takes us to the end of NATO, the end of the WTO [World Trade Organization], and we’ll have to see, but possibly the end of the European Union,” Heisbourg told The Daily Beast, “The E.U. is facing so many challenges already, Trump may think it has reached a tipping point and he can push it over.”
—with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman in New York and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian in Washington