Yesterday, during a news conference in which he said that he wouldn’t label China a currency manipulator, Donald Trump also claimed that he had fixed NATO’s terrorism problems.
At a joint press conference with Mr Stoltenberg, Mr Trump said: “The secretary general and I had a productive discussion about what more Nato can do in the fight against terrorism.
“I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism.
“I said it [Nato] was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”
It’s actually pretty breathtaking. Because NATO countries were always fighting terrorism, from before September 11th, of course, but certainly after, when it invoked, for the first time ever Chapter 5, a mutual defense agreement. But it’s a neat trick, complaining that something already happening should happen, and then taking credit when it still is. Temporally, it’s sort of the mirror image of the great Mitch Hedberg line: “I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.”
It’s the same thing with the Chinese currency manipulation (they haven’t been artificially devaluing Renmimbi for three years, by all accounts, in fact, the opposite). That Trump was accusing them of manipulation was correct, if he was talking about years ago. Chances are he didn’t know that, and didn’t care. But now that they are no longer doing so, he can claim it was his tough talk. It’s like saying “I’ve been telling people for years we should draw heat from earth’s yellow sun, and now people are saying, ‘you’re right, you’re so right, we should’. A lot of people are saying that, and now we are.”
(And it is terrible for Stoltenberg, who has to stand there, and can’t immediately call Trump out for being such a doughy liar. It’s a classic weak-fingered power move by someone steeped in the artifical world of real estate and failed casinos.)
The only inkling of credit that Trump could take is that he drew a spotlight on how member nations need to contribute more of their GDP to national defense, but that was already going up anyway.
But that’s sort of the point. Because you want to ask Trump: what do you mean when you say “NATO wasn’t fighting terrorism”, and that now they are. Do you mean that:
- None of the member states were doing so? Does that include the UK or Canada? Because they clearly were.
- Did you mean in Afghanistan? Because NATO member nations, under the auspices of the International Security Assistance Force, have been there since 2001. Granted, not every member nation sent soliders, but most contributed in one way or the other.
- Do you mean, more vaguely, that they are doing nothing to “fight terrorism” in terms of bombing ISIS, or sending troops into Syria/Iraq? Because that’s not entirely true, nor is it the only way to “Fight terrorism”. Pretty sure that Belgium and France are trying to combat ISIS attacks in their countries.
- But, more to the point, what changed? How are they “no longer obsolete”? Can you point to any actual differences, other than perhaps raising the percent of GDP spent on defense, which you can’t really take credit for, but more to the point, would not have changed anything tactically?
It’s obvious he couldn’t answer any of these questions, and that gets to the real heart of the matter: Donald Trump still doesn’t know what NATO actually is. He really seems to think it is an independent fighting force instead of a collection of nations who sometimes fight under a more unified banner with a central command (as in Kosovo). But there are no, like, standing NATO forces or NATO air force that these countries are not contributing to.
To say NATO has been obsolete is to say that every member nation refuses to take terrorism seriously, which even Trump couldn’t actually think (or, I guess, he could). He might mean that “NATO” should do more to coerce members to step up, which isn’t how it works. But there is no way to interpret his comments that comports with the reality of NATO.
Member states do, of course, have to contribute to what is NATO overhead, but even that is not the same, and not in the way he thinks. That’s why he embarassed himself when Angela Merkel came to visit. He most likely didn’t actually hand Merkel a bill, but he still tweeted that Germany owes…
To which The Guardian explained…
Ultimately, members’ contributions are based on each nation’s capability. Therefore, Nato member nations do not “owe” or have to compensate any other country.
On Saturday Ivo Daalder, who was permanent representative to Nato from 2009 to 2013, respond to Trump in a series of tweets.
“Sorry, Mr President, that’s not how Nato works,” he wrote. “The US decides for itself how much it contributes to defending Nato. This is not a financial transaction, where Nato countries pay the US to defend them. It is part of our treaty commitment.”
But I think the “obsolete” comments go even further. Because there is no NATO except for an agreement between nations, there is nothing to change except for what the nations themselves are doing. And I don’t see any big change since January 20th. Some countries are more aggressive than others in combatting ISIS/AQ, and some have different priorities, but all contribute. It’s always been that way, since that terrible September day, when our strongest allies rallied around a battered and stunned United States, and did so thorugh 15 terrible years and multiple Presidents. It’s still the same, even though Trump refuses to understand that, and continues to take credit for the actions of others.