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NATO has a Trump problem

NATO has a Trump problem
NATO has a Trump problem | Ian Bremmer | Quick Take

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here. And a Quick Take to kick off your week. Could be so much to talk about. I say kick off. So you think it's Super Bowl, but no, no, I'm not going there. Don't. I mean, I care, but not after the game's over. Then I'm kind of done. It's exciting that way. I love sports. I get very excited and then over immediately.

Let's move on to NATO and lots of hair on fire because former President Trump, about to become the Republican nominee, could easily be president again, says that recounting a conversation he had with a leading European leader. (I suspect he's talking about Angela Merkel and Germany.) And that if they refused to pay, that he wouldn't be interested in defending them Indeed, he would tell the Russians they could do whatever the hell they wanted to countries that refused to pay for their own self-defense. And predictably, this got Europeans very agitated. The NATO' secretary-general, the European Council president, both saying this is only good for Putin. It weakens the alliance with Trump saying that and especially saying that publicly and the Europeans are indeed, almost all the Europeans are panicked about what might happen if Trump were to become president in 2025.


And I think these are all real points and deserve to be responded to. I do think it's important to look at the other side of the equation. At the same time, which is, should there be consequences for American allies that are unwilling to prioritize their own self-defense? And by the way, when I say consequences, I don't mean that the Russians should be able to invade them.

But should there be any consequences or should they just continue to be perfect NATO allies in good standing because the de facto policy of the United States appears to be, “well, otherwise, yeah, tell them they need to pay more, but we're not going to do anything if they don't. ” And that also doesn't seem reasonable. That seems like a policy that is guaranteed to alienate the Americans and lead to a much weaker NATO. In fact, if you are a country that is not spending on your own self-defense for years and years, that also is a strong signal to Vladimir Putin. That also is a very weak signal to the future of the NATO alliance. But unfortunately, that message is never sent by the president of the European Council or by the leaders of the countries that don't care about spending on their own defense.

I mean, the Canadians, for example, spend less than 1.3% of GDP on defense. That's roughly exactly what they were spending in the nineties. Why? Because they don't think they need to they don't think it really matters. The Germans, the Italians, the Spaniards. I mean, most of the large economies other than the United States significantly underspend on defense. They don't have adequate troop readiness, they don't have adequate military capabilities, never mind to provide support for Ukraine or other countries that might need it that aren't NATO members, but even to adequately defend themselves.

And that's a serious problem. It's been going on for decades, in part because of a belief that there was a peace dividend, that there weren't going to be wars anymore in Europe, so they didn't really care about NATO and “let the Americans spend if they want to, but we don't have to.” And that's unacceptable as well, especially when the Russians invade Ukraine. Now, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a lot of countries took it more seriously. That's why Finland has joined NATO, that's why Sweden is about to join NATO. Certainly the front line countries are much more worried and they spend a lot more. But those countries that are free riding in the back, they don't care as much. And clearly the right answer is somewhere in between.

It is that for years and years the Americans need to say that if you don't spend or else, and that all else needs to be consequential, needs to have you know, we won't have as many military exercises with you or we're not going to share the same level of intelligence or we're not going to provide as advanced military equipment. And if you do that and make it matter, then those countries are much more likely to do something like actually take you more seriously than if they know you have no fist in your glove. Now, there is a broader question, which is whether a President Trump actually wants the Europeans to spend 2% and then he'll be happy and committed, or whether he believes that NATO is just a drag on the United States. It’s a multilateral group.

It's a commitment with countries that the Americans would rather not be committed to, that Trump thinks it's a fool's game and would rather leave. There are those that have worked with Trump that feel that way. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton certainly thinks that has articulated that that is Trump's actual private view. Hard to know, hard to know. Will say that Trump feels much more comfortable with allies like the Saudis, for example. And you'll remember that he traveled there before we traveled to European countries or to Canada, in part because the Saudis not just short term transactionally, but longer term are committed to US defense. But also recognize that they need to spend and that there is a very ongoing mutual back scratching between the two countries. And the fact that the Saudis don't share American values is a very little interest to Trump, in part because the United States frequently doesn't live up to those values. And certainly Trump doesn't care very much about them. And that the Europeans, in being committed to multilateralism and rule of law, which Trump isn't as interested in, but also more willing to use that to help, you know, sort of strengthen an alliance system that has values as a component of it, is something that Trump thinks the Americans get taken advantage of with.

Now, again, where you land on that spectrum, I think differs radically on, you know, how old you are, your historic world view of the Cold War, for example, where your country is geographically. You know what your immediate threat environment is like, also how you feel about the United States. I mean, as an American, do you think the US has been good for you or do you feel like you've been screwed by the United States? I mean, if you've got kids that went to war in Afghanistan or even the second war in Iraq and didn't come back, came back with PTSD, and the Veterans Administration didn't take adequate care of you, and you don't think the war was fought justly or for principles that you believe in, you probably feel very differently about what the US should and shouldn't be doing in terms of other military alliances than you do say, my dad, who fought in Korea or others that were World War II veterans, certainly, or those in the United States that didn't fight for anything, but nonetheless feel like the American system did pretty well for them.

And it's that latter problem. It's the fact that so many Americans today don't feel like their political system is legitimate, don't feel like the American dream applies to them, don't feel the class mobility, don't trust their leaders or their institutions across the board. That I think is creating so much space for populists in the United States to say, why are we doing for other countries? Trump's other statement that we saw over the last few days, we shouldn't give any foreign aid. It should all be loans. And if you don't behave in ways that we like going forward, that we should take those loans away and we should make you pay it back. And he didn't say that only applies to the Europeans. From his perspective, that would apply to Israel, that would apply to the Japanese. That would apply to Mexico, Canada, he doesn't care. It's America first. And more Americans will feel that way if they think that their country hasn't taken care of, doesn't take care of them or their kids. I don't feel that way. I'd like to live in a United States, it’s the richest country in the world, and we have much more ability to do more for others. And long term, I think that plays to our advantage.

But I absolutely understand why many Americans no longer feel that way. And I think it's a shame. And I think we need to take responsibility to do something about that if we want a different outcome.

So that's it for me for today. I hope everyone's doing well and I'll talk to you all real soon.

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