“Trump’s speech is hardly bristling with complexity. Rather, his vocabulary is extremely simple, almost to the point of being childish, and his use of incomplete thoughts and sentence fragments has an unmediated, stream-of-consciousness feel. It is this combination – the hint of menace beneath the surface added to what appears to be an unpolished immediacy – that millions of listeners take as evidence of Trump’s authenticity and spontaneity. Indeed, the way he talks reminds them of the voice inside their own heads – a rich and sometimes dark stew of conversational snippets and memory scraps, random phrases and half-thoughts – and, by extension, it somehow seems as if they’re hearing the voice inside his head.”
Gwenda Blair’s take on the way that Trump speaks is worth bearing in mind as one probes what he has actually said about NATO, rather than what others say he has said. So: he has said that “I don’t want to pull [America] out”, but that “the distribution of costs has to be changed” and that “I think NATO as a concept is good, but it is not as good as it was when it first evolved”. Asked in a later interview whether America needs to rethink U.S. involvement in NATO, he said: “Yes, because it’s costing us too much money, but in the same interview also said: “not decrease its role but certainly decrease the kind of spending. We are spending a tremendous amount in NATO and other people proportionately less. No good.”
Later, during another interview, the President-elect said: “I think NATO may be obsolete”. Asked for clarification over whether NATO should be abolished, Trump replied: “It’s possible. It’s possible. I would certainly look at it. And I’d want more help from other people. The one thing definitely – we’re paying too much. As to whether or not it’s obsolete, I’ll make that determination.” In the wake of these interviews, he said: “And the press, which is so totally dishonest, the press goes headlines the next day “Trump doesn’t want NATO, wants to disband.” That’s not what I said. I said you’ve got to pay your bills. And you know what? If they can’t pay their bills, honestly there should be – they’ve got to go. Because we can’t do this.”
Later still, in a speech, he said: “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves. We have no choice.” So the President-elect’s position seems to be as follows: NATO was originally a good idea, but times have changed – and other members must pay more for their own defence. So far, so good: the anger that many Americans feel about these other countries taking them for a free ride is justifiable, and that it doesn’t always register here makes it no less so. Other candidates would have put the point more tactfully, but Trump is not like other candidates, which turned out to be his main electoral strength.
However, the President-elect, as we have seen, has gone further. He has also suggested that NATO should be ended; then claimed that the media falsely reported that he thinks America should leave it; then suggested that it is not America that should leave it, but other countries…and then said very clearly in a speech – not an interview – that it is America that may have to leave after all. Furthermore, he has refused to confirm that, under his presidency, America would fulfill its NATO obligations if Russia attacks the Baltic States. You must judge for yourself whether Blair, his biographer, is also right when she says that Trump’s rambling verbal style conceals consistent political purpose. But it is worth quoting him at length to get the feel of how he speaks – and may act.
You may object that some of his predecessors – George W.Bush, for example – are not exactly models of verbal clarity. But Bush had served as Governor of Texas before becoming President. Trump has been a Republican, a member of the Reform Party, a Democrat, a Republican again, an independent, and then a Republican for a third time. He has never held elected office. It would be very foolish indeed to assume that Trump’s musings-aloud are simply campaign bluster, and that he will now become a conventional politician. A conventional politician would not have phoned Ireland’s Prime Minister before Britain’s in the wake of an election win. A conventional politician would have dropped Nigel Farage, and not made a point of meeting him again, as he did yesterday.
UKIP’s former leader, of course, shares Trump’s regard for Putin. And there is a purple party-type tendency to go even further. Estonia, it holds, is “not worth the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier” – or rather a British one. Or Latvia. Or Lithuania. But where does that logic end? Western Ukraine? Poland? Putin’s Russia may not be the Soviet Union, but an invasive Russia would upend European stability none the less. Those other NATO members should up their military spending sharpish , and Phillip Hammond has another budget headache as he prepares for the Autumn Statement. But there is a possibility that even a hike in European defence spending may not be enough to guarantee a clear Trump commitment to NATO.
In a world in which he can win the presidency, we must tear up the rule book. From within the EU, Britain has been a fierce opponent of a European Army, seeing it as a dangerous distraction from NATO – not to mention a paper tiger, since our European neighbours won’t pay for their own defence in the first place. Once outside the Union, we may have to think again. Western Europe needs collective security. If – and it is still only an if – America turns its back on providing it, it will have to do so itself. That would mean paying for it. It would be a project from which Britain, even if only for its own self-interest, could not turn aside. But this sulphurous cloud has a silver lining. That EU countries may need us more for defence and security will be a plus in the Brexit negotiations.