President Donald Trump’s very first conference with NATO heads of state, coming after so many months of NATO bashing during last year’s campaign, can’t be described as anything but awkward and uncomfortable. These kinds of meetings are designed to be rehearsed, with every single speech by a leader heavily scripted and prepared weeks in advance and every handshake and hug between presidents and prime ministers perfectly choreographed. Of course, Trump is immune to choreography—the guy is a bull in a china shop, running around like a tornado, breaking the china.
There were so many cringe worthy moments that one wonders if German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau regretted making the trip to Brussels. Before the ribbon cutting ceremony commemorating the new NATO headquarters, a camera caught Trump shoving the Montenegrin Prime Minister (Montenegro is NATO’s newest member) out of the way to he could get at the front of the pack. Trump’s puffing up his chest after the minor altercation was an apt illustration of his Type A, hyper-intensive personality—the same image-obsessed personality that has gotten his administration into trouble. The handshake between Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron almost turned into a twenty-first-century version of a gladiator match. When Trump delivered his speech, reminding the Europeans and Canadians that they’ve been slacking off the NATO military spending guidelines that they all agreed too over a decade ago, it looked as if the pack of politicians to the side of the podium was a funeral procession.
Despite all of these strange Twitter moments, President Trump’s message to the allies—that they have been riding on the backs of the United States for far too long—was the right one to deliver. When Trump remarked that the current funding trends are “not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States,” he was right on the money. It’s almost inexplicable why a bloc of countries that is the wealthiest in the world is reticent to increase their defense budgets to 2 percent of GDP, a goal that some military strategists believe is too small given the weight of Europe’s problems. From a pure numerical standpoint, this isn’t too much to ask; the United States spends 3.6 percent of its GDP on defense, so the least that rich economic powerhouses like Germany can do is strive for 2 percent. Nobody is asking the Europeans (and the Canadians) to meet this target in a year or even five years, a demand that would be unrealistic to the point of looking foolish. All Washington is asking is that Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and the rest of the slackers start pulling their own weight and meeting the promises that they themselves set.
Critics of the 2 percent benchmark will argue that it’s a completely arbitrary figure, a random number plucked out of a list that doesn’t correspond to any legitimate defense need. And they would be right; there’s nothing special about 2 percent. But it’s a commitment that the transatlantic alliance made nonetheless, and commitments are pointless if the people making them don’t bother to take them seriously. President’s George W. Bush and Barack Obama had the same complaints about European dilly dallying. Donald Trump is just continuing the argument, albeit in his own unique way.
You don’t have like the messenger to agree with the message: NATO’s credibility as an alliance and as an institution suffers when its members can’t even build up the political will to follow their own rules. Trump can certainly smooth the rough edges, because he doesn’t do himself any favors when he publicly scolds America’s closest friends and provides leaders like Merkel and Macron with another reason to worry about United States staying power in Europe. But it’s difficult to disagree with the underlying sentiment—NATO isn’t sustainable if only five member states are upholding their responsibility.