- - Thursday, July 12, 2018


President Trump knows how to make a point by showing up late for a meeting. He arrived 30 minutes late Thursday at a session of the NATO summit, missed scheduled meetings with two world leaders, and talked to reporters for an unscheduled 35 minutes and then flew off to London for greater opportunities for tardiness.

When you’re a big enough cheese you can get by with small affronts to protocol, affronts that a little cheese, like the prime minister of Lower Slobbovia, would never attempt.

Vladimir Putin often keeps people waiting, figuring that it puts them off their game. Suppressing irritation is part of a leader’s job (unless you’re the president of a certain North American republic), and Mr. Putin has made tardiness an art. He was once four hours late to a scheduled meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Germans are among the world’s most punctilious folk, but Frau Merkel didn’t make a fuss. Josef Stalin, by the bye, was in a category all by himself. He once made Mao Zedong wait 17 days for a promised audience.

President Trump’s dramatic exit at Brussels capped an eventful and perhaps even fruitful NATO summit. NATO conferences are usually staid not to say dull sessions, carefully scripted to avoid making news, but this time the president shook things up. If he’s not necessarily a great president, he has established himself as the great entertainer. He repeatedly berated the NATO allies for their meager contributions to the mutual defense.

The NATO allies couldn’t say they weren’t warned (or even that they didn’t have it coming). Mr. Trump tweeted his intentions before he arrived in the Belgian capital: “Getting ready to leave for Europe. 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.” He repeated it several times in Brussels.

He observed that every NATO country had promised to devote a minimum of 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product to their defense. Yet only five of the 29 member nations, the United States, Britain, Greece, Poland, and Estonia, have actually paid up. The United States, on the other hand, contributes more than 3.5 percent of its GDP to defense.) But even with some members that pay up, there’s less than meets the eye. Greece, for example, counts pension payments to retired military men as “defense spending.” Mr. Trump is correct when he points out that the U.S. bears a disproportionate financial burden in protecting everyone. The exceptional nation has been doing it so long that the deadbeats now consider it as just the way it ought to be.

He further stepped on the usual protocol when he scolded Frau Merkel in public for her friendly relations with Vladimir Putin — ironic because Mr. Trump himself is accused of getting too warm with the Russian don. Frau Merkel’s excuse is that Germany relies on imported Russian energy to keep itself warm through the long Teutonic winter, and can’t risk giving Mr. Putin an excuse to cut off the gas.

But guarding against Russian expansionism is, after all, what the alliance is supposed to be all about. The president is only asking why the United States should contribute billions to defend Germany from a nation that it is sending billions of dollars to. “We’re supposed to be guarding against Russia, and Germany goes out and pays billions and billions of dollars a year to Russia,” the president says. A reasonable point.

The good news is that on military spending events are trending in the right direction, no doubt due in large part to the president’s rough complaints, which began before he took office. “All allies are increasing defense spending,” says Jens Stolenberg, NATO’s secretary general. “This year at least eight of the NATO countries have committed to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense and a majority of our allies have plans to do so by 2024. For a quarter of a century many countries have been cutting billions from their defense budgets. Now they are adding billions.”

Presidents before Mr. Trump complained privately that NATO has taken advantage of American generosity over the years, but only Donald Trump has been willing to say out loud what other presidents thought. Making a stink gets attention, and nobody does stink better than the Donald. He deserves a round of applause. A standing ovation can wait until the checks clear.

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