The Trump administration is making so many mistakes, and struggling to make the difficult adjustment from the campaign trail to governing amid an enthralling intelligence scandal of its own making, that it is easy to overlook what his team is getting right.
Donald Trump and his Defense Secretary James Mattis are absolutely spot on when they warned this week, in so many words, that Europe is at it, meaning taking the piss.
Their intervention has, of course, been misrepresented hysterically in some quarters as yet more evidence of the recklessness of the Trump operation. On the contrary, Mattis seems to have successfully shifted Trump away from a more free-wheeling and open-ended mistrust of NATO, towards a simple message on defence that is fair and transactional. That is: pay your fair and agreed share or get ready for support to be reduced. That is perfectly sensible and just, and quite different from Trump’s scary meanderings during the campaign.
Europe must do more to defend itself and pay for that defence. For decades it has been warned about this politely by successive administrations, but not enough was done. Only a handful of NATO members spend the 2% of GDP on defence that is required and agreed.
Of course, propping up NATO was an arrangement that suited the US, particularly during the Cold War, when the goal of Western policy was to contain the Soviet Union. Now, as the US pivots towards Asia, a process that seems to be continuing now that Trump has caved in and is being nice to China, Europe will just have to take more responsibility or accept the consequences.
It is still worth the Europeans – not via the EU, which is useless for the purpose – developing alternative models and capability for defence and security co-operation, looking beyond NATO in case it is weakened, on the basis that the events of recent months show how quickly the situation can change. What if Mattis does not last or Trump becomes more aggressive again? Or Trump himself may not last. Russia is on the prowl. Who knows what the outlook will be this time next year. In such circumstances, Europe should listen to Mattis and take the warning.