While the Trump administration has spent the past weeks scrambling to turn off the spigot of scandal in Washington, NATO officials have been busy putting the final touches on preparations for today’s gathering of NATO heads of state and government in Brussels. Although not officially a summit (the last NATO summit took place in Warsaw in 2016 and the next one won’t be until 2018), today’s meeting of NATO leaders comes at an important moment in the alliance’s evolution. Usually staid affairs, this gathering of leaders from all 28 NATO member countries promises to be anything but. After a heady 2016 U.S. election season that called into question not only the viability of the alliance but also the American-led international order, all eyes will be on President Donald Trump as he pays his first visit to NATO’s over-budget and over-due new headquarters.
Of course, many leaders will also have Monday’s terrorist attack in Manchester, England on their minds as they gather in Brussels barely 72 hours after the bombing. They are likely to speak of the attack and offer their condolences to Prime Minister Theresa May. Outside NATO’s offices, the flags are already flying at half-mast. But apart from this – and a moment of silence for the victims – the meeting’s agenda itself likely will not change much if at all, since the topic of enhancing counter-terrorism cooperation was already one of only two topics to be discussed.
Trump’s avowed criticism of NATO and his tendency to go off script, along with his past effusive praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin at a time when the alliance is committing ever greater resources to shore up its eastern flank, has many NATO allies nervous. If this were a regular summit, the real work would have already happened in advance behind the scenes, allowing leaders to announce amidst great fanfare a new “consensus-based” strategic document on the day of the gathering. Not this time around. While there may be a watered-down conference communique, don’t expect any major strategic announcements. The program is tighter than usual, with plenty of photo opportunities and the dedication of both a 9/11 and Berlin Wall memorial before the official unveiling of the new building. In other words, for better or worse there will be very little time for leaders to interact with and get to know Trump the man.
Also, unlike in the past, when the positions of NATO’s European members may have been divided, expect only continental unity this time around. Look for the Europeans to echo Trump’s calls for stronger counter-terrorism cooperation while stopping short of any new defense spending commitments.
Stoltenberg’s Charm Offensive
Officially, the meeting’s agenda has been fixed for months. Ostensibly an opportunity to celebrate the long-awaited opening of the new headquarters in Brussels, there are just two topics scheduled for discussion: burden-sharing and enhancing NATO’s focus on fighting terrorism. Both topics are familiar Trump talking points and their inclusion is, at least in part, an attempt by NATO leaders to appease the president’s vanity by providing him the cover he needs to portray the gathering as an affirmation of his “America First” foreign policy.
In what is quickly becoming par for the course for this administration, the president and his team appear to have a special talent for reversing policy positions when grand occasions call for it. Witness Trump’s about-face speech last Sunday in Saudi Arabia where, in place of his familiar vow to eradicate “radical Islamic terrorism,” the president instead adopted a markedly different tone in speaking about religious extremism and praised his hosts for opening a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology.
Similarly, during the campaign, Trump was quick to disparage NATO, even going so far as to call the alliance obsolete. Fast forward to last month’s visit of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to Washington and Trump was much more conciliatory in his praise for the transatlantic alliance. Yes, the alliance had been obsolete, Trump told the assembled media, but after heeding his words and agreeing to tackle terrorism, this was “no longer” the case. Of course, NATO has been on the front lines of the war on terror for nearly two decades. The alliance officially recognized terrorism as a security risk back in 1999. Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, NATO members invoked the collective defense article (Article 5) of the Washington Treaty, the first and only time they have ever done so in the alliance’s nearly 70 year history. NATO played a prominent role during the more than decade-long war in Afghanistan and continues to support the development of that country’s security forces today.
Look for more of this Trumpian wordplay in Brussels today as the president’s aides try to create presidential moments for the embattled American leader to take home with him from his trip. In the present climate of almost daily revelations, the White House is desperate to secure any victory — even a manufactured one based on mistruths — that will allow it to portray the president in a favorable light to his supporters back home.
Hitherto Shalt Thou Come, But No Further
For their part, European leaders will be content to let the president spin the yarn that they are adopting reforms in deference to him, if it means the Trump that shows up in Brussels will be the same one that stood next to Stoltenberg back in April. By framing the agenda to include Trump’s two core issues and allowing him to package the meeting to his audience back home, Stoltenberg has extended a hand to Trump.
But don’t expect the Europeans or Canadians to go any further.
They are unlikely, for example, to abandon their resistance to having NATO formally join the anti-ISIL coalition, a move the Trump administration has been pushing for some weeks now. All of the alliance’s members already belong to the coalition, albeit in their capacity as independent nations. The Trump administration would like to see the alliance become an official member, so that NATO’s impressive command and control infrastructure and considerable military resources can be committed to the fight. However, French and German opposition is particularly strong and barring any tangible recompense from the American president, they are unlikely to support such a large and indefinite commitment. And, in the wake of recent attacks in European capitals, these leaders are likely to want to prioritize counter-terrorism efforts at home, rather than abroad. For the same reason, NATO members are unlikely to pledge additional forces for Afghanistan.
On Trump’s other priority, that of getting allies to meet the 2 percent of GDP threshold on defense spending, don’t expect much news either. The Trump administration has been pressuring the allies to boost defense spending in an effort to get them to reach this target sooner than the initially agreed upon date of 2024. Barring that, Secretary of Defense Mattis has said he wants to see concrete national plans for reaching the goal soon. NATO members agreed already in 2014 to develop national timetables for the implementation of the defense pledge and Stoltenberg has been working feverishly behind the scenes in the past few months to push these along, with mixed success. Some countries are further along than others in meeting both deadlines. In lieu of any new announcements on the spending front, expect the alliance instead to simply reaffirm its pledge to the 2 percent threshold and its commitment to finalizing national plans for getting there in the coming year. Given Trump’s impressive rhetorical skills, however, the president should have no trouble portraying this as a win in the “America First” column.
Sara Bjerg Moller is an Assistant Professor at the School of the Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University. She works on military alliances and is currently conducting a tour of NATO’s new installations in Eastern Europe.