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June 17, 2018
This much is predictable.

The world’s most successful and enduring alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is facing a potential transatlantic train wreck of American making when it meets in Brussels July 11-12, its first full-fledged summit of the Trump administration.

Unless President Donald Trump shifts his thinking and actions before then, a toxic political division is growing that could undermine the summit’s fundamental objectives of demonstrating unity and projecting readiness, around which diplomats and commanders have arrayed an impressive set of “deliverables.”

If US officials preparing the summit had their way, Trump would opt for one of his frequent “plot shifts” and pivot to the mostly positive NATO story of his administration, for which he could take some credit. If he wished, he could use the NATO summit to repair damage done at the G7 in Canada last weekend, following his parting shots on “weak and dishonest” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his other allies.

The facts could support that narrative, if he wished them to do so.

Contrary to President Trump’s message early in his presidency that NATO was obsolete, the reality is that the alliance has increased its responsiveness, readiness and mobility during his administration, boosting the ongoing efforts in Afghanistan and moving to make permanent the training mission in Iraq. At the same time, it has more effectively deterred Russian aggression through its rotating, forward presence in Poland, the Baltics, and tailored presence along the Black Sea. Even as the United States has committed an additional $4.8 billion this year to bolster the US posture through the European Deterrence Initiative, more allies are contributing forces to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, with the UK, Germany and Canada serving as lead framework nations in the Baltic states.

Beyond that, President Trump can take some credit that his pressure on allies has resulted in all but one of them increasing their defense spending. Only eight of the twenty-nine have hit the NATO-set target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, but US Defense Secretary James Mattis has heralded four years of continuing increases by European NATO allies and Canada, including 3.82 percent projected this year and 5.21 percent last.

Beyond that, allies at the summit are likely to reach decisions that further improve their readiness, committing by 2020 to field thirty mechanized battalions, thirty air squadrons and thirty combat vessels ready to deploy within thirty days. At the same time, allies have been engaged in a sustained effort to streamline decision-making and provide NATO commanders more robust rules of engagement and greater flexibility in deploying NATO forces.

Defense ministers as well have formally approved the creation of three new bodies within the NATO command structure, with an accompanying increase of 1,200 billets. These include a logistics command in Ulm, Germany, to facilitate faster response; a Joint Force Command in Norfolk, Virginia, to defend Atlantic sea lines of communication (aka SLOCs); and a Cyber Operations Center, to integrate hybrid and unconventional warfare into its force structure and operations.

Beyond that, the NATO summit will highlight decisions to increase the alliance’s role in training Iraqi security forces. Here, too, Trump could take credit that NATO is heeding his demands to do more against terrorism. The alliance can even show gains in EU-NATO collaboration, with steps taken to eliminate infrastructural and diplomatic impediments to moving forces across Europe.

Unfortunately, many of these details may be lost to a President Trump who appears to be favoring gut instincts and seeking the facts that would support those. It’s true that thirteen of the twenty-nine allies have no concrete plans to get to the 2 percent goal by 2020, and only eight have arrived there. He may choose to seize upon half empty rather than half full.

Trump walked out of the G-7 summit muttering that among the stupidest things the US had done was signing the NAFTA trade agreement and signing the NATO treaty. He has said the same to US officials since then. His fundamental view is that the US has paid too much for the defense of allies, who have taken advantage of the US on the other side with trade deficits.   

Those closest to President Trump warn – given his recent NATO comments and trade actions against Europe, Canada and Mexico – that the real estate developer is more likely to come to Brussels next month with a wrecking ball than with a building plan. 

One sign of this, insiders say, is that he is pushing for a summit in Vienna with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, to take place before the NATO summit and his scheduled visit to the United Kingdom on 13 July. Key advisers would like him to delay his meeting with Putin until after those two events, so Trump can arrive after consulting allies and face Putin in a position of strength with the NATO alliance behind the president. But they fear the decision may go the other way, further antagonizing America’s closest friends. That would be a slap in the face to the Brits, who in March suffered the use of a military-grade nerve agent on their home soil in a Russian attempt to assassinate former military intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had hoped that this year’s Brussels summit would be followed by a celebratory 70th anniversary of NATO summit next year in the United States, demonstrating greater solidarity, improved burden sharing and more robust military readiness.

The danger now, however, is that the upcoming summit could threaten the foundation of the alliance’s effectiveness over seven decades: its political cohesion.

The dangers of lasting transatlantic divisions are so great, and the concerns among many that President Trump may prefer such an outcome are so profound, that it’s crucial that President Trump in the weeks ahead of the summit write a script with a surprise ending: a full-throated endorsement of an alliance he has served to strengthen.

He can pivot to the positive and begin claiming credit for the turnaround among European allies in defense spending and NATO’s adaptation to both challenges from the East and the South. He could point to his blunt talk and consistent pressure as paying off, and argue that because of US leadership under him, NATO is stronger and more relevant. 

This story could still have a happy ending. Or, it could be a train wreck.

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe. This blog post is based on his weekly InflectionPoints newsletter. Read the newsletter in full here