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How Trump’s ‘bullying’ approach might affect NATO

President Trump kicked off the NATO summit with fierce criticism of Germany and other top American allies. Will his aggressive approach yield his policy objectives, including increased spending on defense? Judy Woodruff talks with former State Department official Victoria Nuland and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago for analysis of Trump's tactics and the state of the NATO alliance.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to our coverage of the NATO summit and the state of the U.S. relationship with its most important allies.

    Joining me are by Victoria Nuland, former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs at the State Department in the Obama administration, now CEO of the Center for a New American Security, and John Mearsheimer, a West Point graduate and former Air Force officer, now a political and co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago.

    And we welcome both of you back to the program.

    Victoria Nuland, how do you read what the president was doing and saying today at this NATO meeting?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    You know, I think the president somehow thinks that bullying our friends gets him what he wants.

    I was saddened by it, I have to say, because, frankly, NATO allies are answering the call to increase their defense budgets. And they are doing it quite smartly. And it began with the Russian invasion of Crimea, when the threat environment changed.

    So the president had an option today to take credit for this and to instead focus on the unity we need to talk about issues like Russia and China that are true threats.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John Mearsheimer, the president went after Germany, went after the whole alliance. At one point, he was saying, what good is NATO? What does it all add up to?

  • John Mearsheimer:

    Well, I think it’s very important to understand that President Trump ran as a candidate against all of the international institutions that comprise the liberal international order.

    That includes the World Trade Organization, the E.U., the IMF, the World Bank, and NATO. And he said as a candidate that NATO is obsolete. And what he would really like to do, my opinion, is take the Americans out of NATO, take the Americans out of Europe.

    And he’s using this issue of defense spending as a hammer to beat the Europeans over the head. But his ultimate goal is much broader.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, when you say liberal world order, what do you mean by that?

  • John Mearsheimer:

    Well, in the wake of World War II, we created this international order.

    And then, after the Cold War ended, we created this liberal international order that was committed to spreading democracy around the world, building powerful institutions like the WTO, and creating an open world economy.

    And President Trump, when he was a candidate, ran against every one of these elements of the liberal international order.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That is the case, Victoria Nuland. He ran against it.

    And he has been saying for months NATO members need to pay more money for their own defense. Isn’t he right to make that argument?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Every American president since Reagan and probably before has wanted NATO allies to spend more. And 2 percent is what they’re supposed to spend, and they all agreed to do it again starting in 2014. And they’re starting to do it.

    So he’s not wrong to ask them to do it and to say that that’s the fair share. The problem is, when he uses these bully tactics, it actually makes it harder for politicians in Europe to say yes to him, because then they become pushed-around poodles of the United States.

    It would be much better if he talked instead about the threats that we share, the threats from Russia, from China, increasingly has an interest in Europe, and use that as a motivator. Affirmative motivation works better with Europeans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you think about that?

  • John Mearsheimer:

    Well, I think that it’s important to understand that, in President Trump’s mind, the Europeans are free-riding on the United States, and they are a liability.

    He obviously doesn’t see Russia as a great threat.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is that a fact? Are they riding on the United States?

  • John Mearsheimer:

    Of course they’re free-riding. As Ambassador Nuland said, previous presidents, including President Obama, who you worked for, complained bitterly about the fact that the Europeans didn’t spend enough money on defense. So this is not a new issue.

    What’s a new issue is that President Trump basically has his gun sights on NATO.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And let’s come to, Victoria Nuland, is there a point to what the president is doing? You say yourself that presidents have been asking them to pay more. They are paying a little bit more, and we heard Jens Stoltenberg, who is the NATO secretary-general, say today that some of the credit certainly goes to President Trump for that.

    But today the president upped it up to 4 percent and said — is raising the ante again. Is that going to bring the result that he wants?

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Well, even the United States doesn’t spend 4 percent of GDP on defense right now, so it’s outrageous, and he couldn’t get that out of the U.S. Congress with all the other things that we have to spend money on, and with the bloating of U.S. debt. So that is a ridiculous one.

    I think, you know, he is right to say 2 percent, but, again, he also should be working intensively with the Europeans to ensure that they spend that money on the right things, so that the U.S. isn’t the only one with enough helicopters, enough aerial surveillance, enough long-range weapons, those kinds of things.

    I would have like to have seen him roll up his sleeves and actually work on solving these problems, rather than creating this toxic environment where it’s actually harder to solve the problems.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is it possible, John Mearsheimer, for him to do that in this environment?

  • John Mearsheimer:

    Well, there’s two points.

    One, there was a poll was released today that shows that only 15 percent of Germans are interested in increasing defense spending. Just think about it, only 15 percent.

    As the ambassador said, when President Trump browbeats these people like this, if anything, it undermines the European leaders’ ability to convince their publics to increase defense spending. So it seems to me we’re not going to reach 2 percent, like he would like to achieve.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, of course, with Germany, there’s the overhang of World War II, the Nazis, the somewhat understandable reluctance on their part to build up a muscular military.

  • John Mearsheimer:

    But it’s also the fact, I think, Judy, that the European leaders — and this includes the Germans — just don’t see Russia as a serious military threat. Yes, they have cyber-attacks and so forth and so on that bother people greatly, but, as a military threat, as a threat that looks like the Soviet Union during the Cold War, you just don’t see that.

    And in the absence of that threat, it’s very difficult to get people to spend huge amounts of money on defense.

  • Victoria Nuland:

    I actually disagree with that.

    I think that, you know, when Putin invaded Crimea, Germans and all other NATO allies understood that NATO territory could be next. And that’s why Germans are now deployed in the Baltic states, which you never would have seen before, particularly after the enlargement of NATO. They didn’t actually want to actually scare the bear.

    But now the bear is scaring them. But the problem is, with President Trump now going to see Putin, if we’re not united at NATO, then why should Putin take anything Trump says about de-escalating his attacks on us seriously?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What about that, John Mearsheimer? And then you heard the president almost turning that argument around today and saying the Germans are relying too much on Russia for their energy resources.

  • John Mearsheimer:

    Well, it’s clear that President Trump wants to improve relations with the Russians. And, in that regard, I think he’s doing the right things.

    I think that terrible relations between the United States and Russia is not good for the United States, it’s not good for the Europeans, and anything that he can do to improve the relations is all for the good. So I’m all in favor of him talking to them.

  • Victoria Nuland:

    I’m also in favor of him talking to them. The only way to solve things with the Russians is leader-to-leader negotiations, because Putin is the only one who is allowed to make decisions there.

    But you don’t go in weak. You don’t go in with a divided alliance. You don’t in agreeing with Putin’s perspectives on things and undercutting our traditional allies.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Bottom line, to both of you, John Mearsheimer, is the NATO alliance weakened materially as a result of episodes like today?

  • John Mearsheimer:

    Yes.

    The key question is what happens over the next two-and-a-half years? And then, if President Trump gets reelected in 2020, what happens after that?

    It’s hard to imagine that this alliance is going to be in good shape in 2021, should he leave the White House then. And it’s hard to see it surviving if he gets another four years. I mean, he is slowly, but steadily chipping away.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just a sentence.

  • Victoria Nuland:

    I, unfortunately, agree with that, particularly if he gets reelected.

    But, right now, the important thing is one your correspondent made, that even though Trump is making a lot of noise, he’s still making strong U.S. contributions to NATO, including our big troops presence in Poland and in the East, and that’s very, very important, and signing the NATO communique today.

    So maybe it’s just a lot of noise.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And a lot of that got lost in all the fuss.

  • Victoria Nuland:

    It did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Victoria Nuland, John Mearsheimer, thank you both.

  • John Mearsheimer:

    You’re welcome.

  • Victoria Nuland:

    Thank you, Judy.

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