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Trump's secret NATO strategy

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By Frida Ghitis

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) -- Before you woke up this morning, President Donald Trump had already insulted America's closest friends at a gathering of NATO allies in Brussels, Belgium. European leaders said they were expecting a bad summit, but said Trump made it even worse than they feared.

The annual summits used to be an opportunity to reaffirm unity among close friends and work privately to resolve differences in order to solidify an alliance whose success in preserving peace and prosperity is unmatched. Then came Trump, who detonated a hand grenade of discord and acrimony, claiming America's allies are taking advantage of the United States, twisting the facts and doing his best to shout the disagreements over a social media megaphone.

That raises the question, what exactly is Trump trying to do?

If you take Trump at his word, he is simply trying to keep the allies from abusing America's largesse. He wants them to pay more for their own defense. He might even argue that his goal is to make NATO stronger. But a closer look at the facts suggests Trump is trying to achieve precisely the opposite. The President, it appears, is trying to break NATO. He is exaggerating and distorting the financial facts and he is doing it so loudly that he seems to be preparing his supporters at home for a decision that would shake the world and make it a much more dangerous place: withdrawing the United States from the North Atlantic Alliance. That, in effect, would destroy NATO.

Incidentally, that would constitute a triumph for Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, who has publicly stated the obvious, that it would be very good for Russia if NATO were "falling apart."

In Brussels, Trump lashed out against America's allies, incorrectly saying they were "delinquent" and accusing Germany of being a "captive of Russia" because of a natural gas pipeline linking the two countries. The issues of defense spending and natural gas supplies from Russia merited discussion in the sessions, but this public rebuke, with television cameras rolling, was not aimed at solving the problems but at magnifying the message. It's no wonder Trump posted the video on Twitter. He is trying to turn Americans against NATO.

Before he left for Brussels, Trump complained that the allies are not paying their fair share. He completely twisted the facts, asking in a tweet whether NATO members would "reimburse" the United States after they have been "delinquent" in payments to NATO. Either he doesn't understand how NATO works, or he's trying to manipulate public opinion with dangerous lies. It's hard to say which is worse.

The allies are not delinquent, and the United States is not paying for any shortfall of theirs. The members have made an agreement that each country will spend 2% of its GDP on defense, and that they will seek to reach that goal by 2024.

The United States has been prodding Europe to raise its own defense spending, and the trend started to improve under Barack Obama. But Trump is making it sound as if the United States is paying everyone else's dues. That is false.

It's worth noting yet again that America benefits and prospers from peace and stability in Europe and from leading the world's strongest military alliance. And US defense spending is not all to protect Europe. It includes military costs in Afghanistan, South Korea, across the seas, and on salaries and benefits for troops everywhere.

Trump has shown that nothing will satisfy him. No level of defense spending will be enough, because what he really wants is to pull out. NATO leaders were shocked when Trump suddenly told them he wants them to spend 4% of their GDP on defense, suddenly doubling the threshold they are struggling to reach.

He claimed the United States already spends more than 4% on defense, which according to NATO's most recent numbers is false. The United States is expected to spend 3.5% in 2018.

Does the West really need to spend another trillion dollars on defense? That's absurd. The United States and its allies already spend more than all other countries combined. Russia spent $61 billion on defense last year, China is spending $175 billion for 2018. NATO allies, excluding the United States, already spend more than either Russia or China. Together, US allies already spend close to a trillion dollars in defense, arguably more than enough to face even aggressive foes. The United States spent $623 billion.

Trump, of course, refused to say Putin is a foe. So, if Russia is just a "competitor," as he termed it, why does the Atlantic Alliance need to spend another trillion dollars on defense? The answer is that it doesn't. Trump is simply creating obstacles to the unity -- and perhaps the survival -- of NATO.

America's European partners have already raised their defense spending significantly. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said eight countries will meet or exceed the 2% mark this year, up from three in 2014. They are doing it not only because of Trump's pressure -- even though they want him to take credit for the increases -- but because they are worried about Russia.

They watched Putin send his forces into Ukraine and steal Crimea. When they see Trump cozying up to Putin, their fear of Russia is greatly magnified.

It's not only Russia's neighbors who are worried. The anguish extends across the United States and even to Trump's closest advisers. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to be beseeching his boss to respect the alliance. Perhaps hoping Trump would read his plea, he tweeted, "@NATO is the most successful alliance in history ... Weakness provokes; strength and cohesion protects..." And on Tuesday, the Senate voted 97-2, an overwhelming bipartisan majority, to reaffirm the US commitment to NATO.

For Republicans, that vote counts as bravery. Democrats were more direct, calling Trump's "brazen insults and denigration" of Germany, "an embarrassment," and accusing the President of being more loyal to Putin than to America's NATO allies.

Trump's week of travel is just getting started. The spectacle at NATO headquarters was a warning. After kicking America's friends in the teeth, in a few days it will be time to embrace America's "competitor," the Russian President who has been behaving as an enemy of the United States and its friends, and is no doubt thoroughly enjoying Trump's performance in Brussels.

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