From the campaign trail to the Oval Office, Donald Trump has consistently proposed a kind of portfolio reassessment of America’s alliance system overseas. His initial meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May went well. But traditional American allies in Europe are still concerned. And Trump means them to be.
Last spring, the New York billionaire famously said that NATO is obsolete, setting off alarm bells from Washington to Warsaw. Just days before his inauguration, in an interview with The Times, he defended that statement — putting it in the past tense — while adding that “countries aren’t paying their fair share.” Now that Trump is president, there are two common interpretations of how this may play out: The first holds that his prior statements on NATO mean little. The second is that Trump is hell-bent on dismantling the Atlantic alliance. The trouble is, both interpretations are mistaken.
Trump himself has indicated more than once how he prefers to approach this issue. In a speech last April hosted by the Center for the National Interest, he reiterated that “our allies are not paying their fair share,” and that “in negotiation, you must be willing to walk.” At the same time, he stated that he wishes to strengthen traditional alliances. This ambition to “reinforce old alliances” was repeated in his inaugural address. Is there a fulcrum here?