The Europeans wrote the book on how to be successful deadbeats. We got another demonstration of that at the NATO summit this week in Brussels. Some of the chief practitioners of the art of welshing on a debt take a fulsome pride in their deadbeat pedigree.
Donald Trump, with his usual barn dance through the china closet, rebuked the easy riders with plain-spoken tweets even before he arrived in Brussels, warning that the summit might not be the usual tea with crumpets on the side, as favored by diplomats of delicate disposition.
“Getting ready to leave for Europe,” he tweeted en route. “First meeting — NATO. The U.S. is spending many times more than any other country in order to protect them. Not fair to the U.S. taxpayer.” Nor, he was too polite to say, is it fair to the memory of several hundred thousand Americans who left their blood and bones in Europe twice in the previous century, all to make the continent a safe place to stuff croissants, fettucine and sausages down the gullets of the deserving and the undeserving alike. A kind and forgiving folk, the Americans, generous often to a fault, and always too modest and polite to say so. That obviously doesn’t necessarily include the Donald.
America can’t actually expect much from the NATO nations. Every one of the 29 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization promised on joining to devote a minimum of 2 percent of their Gross National Product to pay for mutual defense. Given the past performance of the United States, that’s a sweetheart deal. Only five of the 29 have paid up, and some who haven’t include the wealthiest nations of the treaty. This means you, Frau Merkel. Push yourself away from the table and all those sausages and pay up.
The very idea of paying a fair share sets tempers alight across the continent. There was little if any Continental shame at being called out, as if the finance company had called to warn that the BMW in the garage would be seized if a check was not dropped in the mailbox at once. Abundant Continental pride, however, was definitely affronted. Some of the most affluent leaders were most concerned about the prospect of being shamed into paying up at once.
Mr. Trump had frightened them with a suggestion that the dues might eventually be raised to 4 percent of GDP. This would require even more sacrifice from the Americans, who are paying 3.4 percent now.
No, no, said President Emmanuel Macron of France, the members of NATO had said they would catch up on their dues of 2 percent by the year 2024. Nobody said nothin’ about no stinkin’ 4 percent. “A communique was issued [Wednesday],” said M. Macron. “This communique is clear. It reaffirms the 2 percent by 2024 commitments. That is all.”
He got a swift second on that from Guiseppe Conte, the prime minister of Italy. “Italy inherited spending commitments to NATO, commitments that we did not change, so no increase in spending. As far as we’re concerned, today we did not decide to offer extra contributions with respect to what was decided some time ago.”
Frau Merkel, the richest European of all (and some might say with the most to make up for), said Germany would “consider” more spending, but nothing about making any new commitments, and besides, nothing Germany might do about reconsidering its defense budget has nothing to do with pressure from Mr. Trump and the Americans.”
This was inflated by the rumor to suggest pull-out. The rumor story smelled from the beginning like something the reporters in Brussels could have dreamed up for a story. President Macron was eager to shoot the rumor down.
“Generally I do not comment on what goes on behind the scenes,” he said. “But at no moment did President Trump, either bilaterally or multilaterally, say that he was intending to leave NATO.” Mr. Trump, as anyone who has been paying attention over the past months knows, sometimes says things that surprise himself, but he always clears up the water he muddies. Then, like Dr. Pangloss, he finds everything actually getting better and better in every way every day.
“The United States commitment to NATO is very strong, remains very strong,” he said at the end of an imperfect day. “I believe in NATO.” And who says there were angry words? “There’s a great, very collegial spirit in that room. Very unified, very strong, no problem.” Of course not. No problem at all.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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