Did President Trump Get Anything More From NATO Than What He Came With?

16 hours ago
Originally published on July 12, 2018 8:59 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now let's bring in NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. She has been following developments as President Trump has wound his way through Europe. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So we just heard how things are playing out in London. And I just want to take a moment to step back and talk about President Trump's performance in Brussels. I mean, yesterday he was bombastic, aggressive, critical of allies. And then today at that press conference he gave this morning, he was claiming victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This has turned out to be a very successful summit. This is - I think really that NATO is more put together right now, is more coordinated. And I think there's a better spirit for NATO right now than perhaps they've ever had.

CHANG: So, Mara, two questions for you - what happened between yesterday and today?

LIASSON: (Laughter).

CHANG: And did President Trump get anything more than what he came in with?

LIASSON: Before President Trump came in or before he was elected, the NATO allies had already agreed to raise defense spending to 2 percent of their GDPs by 2024, and that hasn't changed. Even though the president claims they'll be getting there at a faster rate, we haven't seen any details about that. Emmanuel Macron says, no, we're sticking to our original plan to get to 2 percent by 2024.

But what did happen between yesterday and today was a big reversal. He came in with guns blazing, said Germany was a captive of Russia. He described the U.S. contributions to NATO as a kind of protection racket. And then he did a complete 180 from NATO basher...

CHANG: Yeah.

LIASSON: ...To NATO booster. It was almost as if he'd gotten himself into a corner. He made some big demands like they have to spend 4 percent, or they have to spend 2 percent immediately. And then he had to climb his way out of it. So for the first time, he decided to take yes for an answer...

CHANG: (Laughter).

LIASSON: ...Which is what NATO officials have been begging him to do. They've been saying, declare victory; take credit for our increased spending, and move on.

CHANG: I mean, as whiplash - this is kind of a familiar pattern for this president, right? I mean, he comes out swinging. Think North Korea just last summer. It was all fire and fury on Twitter.

LIASSON: Yes, this was very similar to North Korea. Donald Trump famously promised to run the presidency like a business, and he certainly is running it like a reality TV show business. He creates a lot of suspense. He creates crises, confrontation. The tough hero comes in, vanquishes his enemies and claims victory with what he calls major new concessions even if they don't exist kind of like what we saw in North Korea. But by that measure, he certainly is succeeding.

He gets to claim a rhetorical success. He gets to be the hero of his own story. At the same time, NATO claims substantive success. After all, the U.S. signed a communique agreeing to language condemning Russia's annexation of Crimea. He did not pull troops out of Germany as he has threatened in the past. So it was kind of a win-win situation.

CHANG: Yeah, and on that point about NATO claiming success even while President Trump was in Europe bashing allies, the Republican-controlled Congress here passed resolutions almost unanimously calling the alliance ironclad and indispensable. What should we make of what was going down in Washington versus in Brussels?

LIASSON: I think it tells you that even though President Trump himself is allergic to multinational groups and institutions and he sees alliances as a kind of imposition on America's sovereignty and he seems more comfortable dealing with America's enemies, that view is not shared by the Republican Party in Congress or even by anyone in his own administration. There is not an anti-NATO caucus in American politics.

So even as Congress passed these nonbinding resolutions backing NATO, no one in the administration is echoing the kind of harsh rhetoric that the president used. And European diplomats will say that below the level of the president, cooperation between the U.S. and NATO is pretty good. On a military level, people in the Pentagon and the State Department are all saying the alliance is strong.

CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Mara Liasson. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.