German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump talk during...

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump talk during a photo session at the NATO summit Wednesday in Brussels. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt

The positioning of Donald Trump Wednesday at the center of the NATO summit’s official photo was deeply ironic. The president seems more determined to wreck the hallowed alliance and bulwark of Western democracy than serve as its unifying force.

That would be a catastrophic mistake.

Some of his grievances are understandable. There is a role for his china shop bull act in trying to get NATO countries to spend more on their own defense. That was a sore spot for Trump’s predecessors, too. But all 29 members have been making progress toward the goal adopted in 2014 of spending at least 2 percent of GDP. They have until 2024, and NATO says eight will hit the mark this year. Trump could have taken credit for that this week in Brussels. Instead, he moved the goalpost to 4 percent, an unreasonable demand that not even the United States, at 3.57 percent, meets.

More disconcerting is the contrast between Trump’s increasing bellicosity toward America’s allies and his sweeter talk about Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Trump will hold a one-on-one summit on Monday in Finland.

NATO was created after World War II to confront and contain Russia, and it not only has protected Europe, it also has furthered American interests. And the need for NATO has not dissipated — see Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, its provocations in Ukraine, and its meddling in elections in the United States and elsewhere. There is a reason for the U.S. Senate’s 97-2 vote to express support of NATO.

There are troubles — real, not manufactured — within NATO as well. Turkey, Hungary and Poland are sliding toward authoritarian control, nationalism is ascendant in Italy, and Britain is negotiating its Brexit from the European Union. But Trump said nothing about these actual threats and instead attacked Germany, a stalwart partner.

His Berlin broadside demonstrated the power of words, and the need to choose them carefully. After he said a natural-gas pipeline deal Germany signed with Russia makes Germany a “captive” of Russia, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, properly retorted that she knows well what it’s like to be a captive of the Soviet Union. Trump’s bombastic statement that Germany is “totally controlled” by Russia smacked of an attempt to deflect similar charges lobbed at him. Before this trip, Trump described Russia as a “competitor.” It’s not. It’s an adversary.

We’re concerned about Trump’s longstanding eagerness to embrace Putin. Meeting alone with the wily leader, even if translators and note-takers are present, is worrisome — witness the fallout from Trump’s meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, where now the sides disagree about what they agreed to. With Putin, there is even more on the table: Syria, Ukraine, Crimea, the future of the Iran nuclear deal, and Russia’s interference in the election that made Trump president.

By the close of the day, Trump ultimately agreed to sign the NATO declaration that condemned the annexation of Crimea and bolstered the alliance’s defenses against Russia. Those are the tough words and actions the president should bring to Helsinki. 

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