This morning, at the Nato summit, US President Donald Trump got into an extended dust-up with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and the exchange generating the headlines is the one in which Trump ripped into Germany.
Trump criticised Germany for getting so much energy from Russia, adding: "We have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that's being paid to the country we're supposed to be protecting you against."
As some quickly pointed out, Trump was basically performing a version of his "No puppet. No puppet. You're the puppet" routine, as well as treating Nato a bit like a "protection racket."
But there's another exchange with Stoltenberg that is also extremely telling.
In it, Stoltenberg was talking about how Nato members had agreed to boost their contributions to Nato defence costs, as insisted upon by Trump, who claims the United States is getting ripped off. But then Trump demanded Stoltenberg give him credit for it:
After Stoltenberg noted that Nato members had boosted their spending recently, Trump asked: "Why was that?" Stoltenberg took Trump's cue and said it was "because of your leadership." Trump then gestured to the press and said, "They won't write that."
Stoltenberg then supplied Trump with the additional praise he wanted, even claiming that "your message is having an impact." It was after Stoltenberg extolled the virtues of the alliance that Trump launched into the diatribe about Russia, Germany and energy — and again claimed the United States is being treated unfairly.
What's remarkable here is Stoltenberg's active effort to get Trump to take credit for getting his own way at Nato.
European officials badly want Trump to do this, because they are hoping it will mollify him.
Diplomats are worried that Trump's commitment to the organisation might weaken to a crisis point, which would "send the alliance into a tailspin, damaging security by opening the question of whether Nato's most powerful member is still willing to defend its allies if one were attacked."
On top of that, they fear this will play into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Trump is also set to meet.
And so, to avert this crisis, European officials "would love nothing more than for Trump to take a victory lap and claim credit for them boosting their defence spending," Jonathan Swan recently reported.
The trouble is that Trump won't even acknowledge what US allies are actually doing in this regard.
He keeps claiming that other Nato countries have fallen short of their defence budget commitment, but this is false: In fact, this target is a future one that Nato members agreed upon.
In that context, this exchange with Stoltenberg underscores the point. Stoltenberg gave Trump a big moment for domestic consumption, particularly for his base: The power of Trump's "America First" message is forcing the Euro-weenie elites to stop fleecing the US and pony up! They're not laughing at us anymore, dammit! America is respected again! Or as one administration official recently described the Trump Doctrine: "We're America, b—h!"
Yet the takeaway from the episode has to be that Trump is far from satisfied.
But what would satisfy him? It's true that previous presidents have made an issue of Nato funding in the past, but what's happening now seems like something different: As Jonathan Chait points out, Trump appears to be deliberately avoiding any scenario in which he might claim a win.
Indeed, it's plausible that, whether through ignorance or malice, he has structured his ask in a way that it cannot be fulfilled, in order to create a pretext for precipitating a fissure with the alliance:
Compared to a week ago, it is now harder to imagine Trump will use the summit to leverage concessions that will make him appear like a strong negotiator, and much easier to imagine that he will use it to instigate a diplomatic crisis with Nato.
By the time this is over, he may well have reoriented American foreign policy completely.
It's a variation on the routine of the schoolyard bully who says to his prey, "What did you say about my mother?" The prey then protests that he said nothing, prompting the bully to respond: "Are you calling me a liar?"
The parallel is imperfect, but in both cases the interaction is rigged so no response is ever good enough, to create a pretext for a predetermined action.
Something similar is happening on trade: Trump's tariffs are being imposed along with demands that cannot be met, suggesting the actual goal is to rupture the global trading order.
Indeed, the basic question that threads through many of Trump's recent actions is whether he is actively trying to destroy the institutions and international order that have undergirded the Western liberal democratic achievement for the past 70 years.
What presses this question upon us — and at the same time makes it hard to reckon with adequately — is that so much of what Trump does appears saturated in a level of bad faith that defies description, analysis or explanation.