If the former is true, then the allies should probably take Trump’s demands seriously. They should ignore his bluster, turn the other cheek, let him take credit for spending targets set by the Obama administration and move on. Given the genuine threats of Russian aggression from the east, as well as the terrorism threat from the south, the long-standing U.S. demand for Europe to spend more is valid. Many European nations clearly should invest more in hard military power. Europeans need the United States to stay in Europe. On the ground, the alliance is healthier and more cooperative than it has ever been. If America’s allies have to listen to Trump dissembling a few times a year — if they have to let him take credit for resolving fake crises — then maybe that’s a price they should pay.
But what if Trump is playing a different game altogether? Remember, Trump has been calling NATO a waste of money for decades. “America has no vital interest” in Europe, he wrote in 2000: “Their conflicts are not worth American lives. Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually. The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous. And these are clearly funds that can be put to better use.” During his election campaign, he refused to reaffirm any commitment to NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee. During his first NATO summit last year, he again refused to reaffirm Article 5, though an administration official had promised he would. He has repeatedly gone out of his way to insult NATO allies, including the British prime minister as well as the German chancellor, even accusing Angela Merkel — in what looks like a classic case of projection, in advance of his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin — of allowing Germany to be “controlled” by Russia.