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At the NATO summit, Trudeau won the argument. Did it matter?

Call it a tale of two NATOs.

There may be no better way to summarize the extraordinary events, the astonishing clash of visions that took place this week both inside and outside of the massive glass and steel beehive that is the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters.

Strip away the toxic tweets, the political posturing and diplomatic body-blows and what remains painfully evident is a stark sense that the soul of the Atlantic alliance was up for grabs at the recent NATO leaders’ summit.

On one side was U.S. President Donald Trump and his mercantilist view of the institution that started out life seven decades ago as a military command — a mechanism to coordinate the work of allied armies facing down the Soviet Union.

Trump the real estate developer made it clear that he sees NATO as an exclusive club where “delinquent” members have been freeloading at the expense of American taxpayers for decades.

Opposing Trump’s viewpoint (and perhaps obscured by the president’s Twitter tantrums) is the notion articulated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — that NATO is more than merely the sum of its tanks and jets, and its 29 occasionally fractious members.

In his remarks to the German Marshall Fund policy forum on Wednesday, Trudeau described NATO as a living expression of the liberal democratic “values and principles” forged out of the bloody nightmare of the Second World War.

Trudeau’s counter-argument

While Trump deployed jaw-dropping inaccuracies to focus on the dollars and cents of NATO and publicly shame American allies for not meeting spending targets (Trudeau acknowledged that Canada won’t), it was left to the prime minister to appeal to what Abraham Lincoln once called our “better angels.”

True, the PM’s remarks were very much on-brand for a Liberal government facing an election in a year, but his core message about the rise of authoritarian governments and the rolling back of the democratic principles that informed NATO’s creation cracked the cynicism of even some of the most seasoned of summit observers.

U.S. President Donald Trump checks his watch prior to a dinner at the Art and History Museum at the Parc du Cinquantenaire during the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium on July 11, 2018. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Reuters)

“People around the world who are receiving the impacts of NATO don’t just benefit from the security elements of it, but benefit from this story we are telling — that democracies matter and that our values and principles matter,” Trudeau told the forum.

“We’ve figured out — NATO countries — a pretty good model of how to support citizens, how to create strong governance, with freedom, with security, with all of those things.”

He reminded the audience that the global rise of authoritarianism — even in countries once considered successful democracies — is linked to the economic insecurity felt by many people.

“Our responsibility is not to enhance, or exaggerate, or profit from those anxieties out there,” Trudeau said. “Our responsibility is to allay those fears, to tell people, ‘Look, we have faced down massive challenges as a world in the past and we did it by coming together and standing side by side for what we knew was right. We can again and we need to again.”

Obliquely referencing Trump’s demand that all members immediately meet NATO’s two-per-cent-of-GDP target for defence spending, Trudeau challenged the alliance to look beyond the numbers.

“You can try and be a beancounter and look at exactly how-much-this and how-much-money-that. The fundamental question is: Is what you’re doing actually making a difference?”

And NATO is making a difference, he said, in the Baltic states and in an Eastern Europe rattled by the reawakening of Russian imperial ambitions in Ukraine.

Six more years of this?

Trump’s reported threat to “reassess” America’s defence commitments — and his public musings about discussing a halt to NATO military exercises in the Baltic with Russian President Vladimir Putin — have done more to create uncertainty than any of the public drama generated by angry tweets and insults.

“I think if you ask the Europeans, they’ll say, ‘We can last two years, we can’t last six more,'” said Steve Saideman a professor of international affairs at Carleton University, referring to the U.S. election cycle.

Trudeau’s appeal to democratic values was the right message at the right time, he said, but he wondered how much impact it will have beyond the summit walls.

“Who’s winning here in this building? Trudeau is winning in this building,” he said. “His rosy picture of Canada and the values it stands for, his call to arms for tolerance and for making a difference in the world — I think that played very well in the room [of academics].

“I’m kind of cynical about these things, but even towards the end I was kind of moved by it.”

U.S. President Donald Trump is claiming a victory, saying he’s gotten NATO’s members to spend two per cent of their GDP on defence by 2024. 2:19

In the other room — where the NATO leaders met — “Trudeau is still more popular,” Saideman said, because Trump was “not winning over many hearts and minds in that building, except maybe Hungarian minds and the Turks.”

But in the end, he said, it comes down to power. “Trump is president of the United States. He has more influence and what he says matters more.

“But in terms of the debate, Trudeau and Trump, it’s easy who is making the more reality-based arguments and the more persuasive arguments.”

Stéfanie Von Hlatky, the director of the Queen’s University Centre for International and Defence Policy in Kingston, Ont., said there is still room for optimism about NATO’s future despite the astonishing rhetoric coming from Trump.

Notwithstanding Trump’s bombast, she said, the U.S. is deepening its military involvement in places like Poland.

“We have to look at what is tangibly being done and on that front we can find some comfort,” she said. “What we would hope to see — eventually — is some rhetoric that is less harsh (regarding) the allies. You want to re-establish trust and predictability, at least in that intimate alliance setting.”

Von Hlatky said she does not believe NATO is fracturing. It has “overcome political disagreements” in the past, such as the divide created by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

For his part, Trudeau said the roadmap away from populism involves responding to wild claims and rhetoric “with calm, rational messages about how we can solve these challenges together.”

CBC | Politics News