President Trump included the trip to NATO headquarters in Brussels as part of his first overseas visit in office, and over a year later he is making another appearance to meet with the leaders of 28 other NATO countries. The summit is merely the opening gambit of this European trip, with Trump also making stops on British shores and in Finland for the meeting he said “may be the easiest of all,” with Vladimir Putin.
Plenty has happened stateside since the president was elected, but little has changed surrounding his relationships with NATO or his European counterparts. Trump is expected to once again play the black sheep at the July 11-12 summit, as he likely intends to make life difficult for leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel who have yet to fulfill their commitments to spend 2% of GDP on defense.
If Trump has anything to say about it, defense spending will be a key topic, while other NATO partners will likely spend most of their time pushing a Europe-versus-Russia narrative.
Several leaders may be feeling nervous or defensive as they anticipate meeting President Trump when he arrives at the summit. In preparation for the summit, the president has apparently sent letters to a number of his NATO counterparts, reminding them of their 2014 pledges to meet a minimum contribution of two percent of GDP to defense spending. Depending on the source, the letters were either “threatening” or “sharply worded,” but either way Trump has made it clear that he is not happy. He reportedly wrote to German Chancellor Angela Merkel:
“As we discussed during your visit in April, there is growing frustration in the United States that some allies have not stepped up as promised… The United States continues to devote more resources to the defense of Europe when the Continent’s economy, including Germany’s, are doing well and security challenges abound. This is no longer sustainable for us.”
Other countries including Spain, Belgium, Canada, and Norway are also thought to have received similar letters; Prime Minister Charles Michel of Belgium told German newspaper Deutsche Welle that he was “not very impressed” by his.
A few hours before boarding a flight to Brussels, Trump also tweeted:
Getting ready to leave for Europe. First meeting – NATO. The U.S. is spending many times more than any other country in order to protect them. Not fair to the U.S. taxpayer. On top of that we lose $151 Billion on Trade with the European Union. Charge us big Tariffs (& Barriers)!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2018
NATO countries must pay MORE, the United States must pay LESS. Very Unfair!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2018
According to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who was welcomed at the White House in May, eight NATO countries are on track to meet the 2% spending goal by the end of 2018, compared to only three in 2014.
The Ukraine and Russia
Within a week of the NATO summit, President Trump will be meeting with the organization’s arch enemy: Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting will take place in the relatively neutral location of Finland – officially a non-aligned country.
The supposed threat of Russian aggression is set to feature prominently at the summit, with scheduled events including a joint statement by the Secretary General and the Presidents of Ukraine and Georgia – two countries that have had tumultuous relationships with Putin’s regime.
The Ukraine position is expected to be a major topic of discussion at the summit. Unlike the U.S., many NATO members are situated right on Russia’s doorstep and also happen to be members of the European Union, which, much to the chagrin of the Kremlin, has been openly courting Ukraine.
In June, NATO sent a further message to Russia by holding its largest war games since the Cold War in Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – all countries that have felt the iron fist of Russia at various points in history and are reluctant to fall back under it. They are also countries whose leaders traveled to the White House in April to ask for additional U.S. material support. Poland has even asked President Trump to install a permanent military base on its soil, a proposal that has yet to be approved.
“When NATO infrastructure directly approaches our borders, this certainly does not contribute to security and stability on the continent in any way,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in response to a possible U.S. base in Poland. NATO forces were equally unnerved, however, during Russia’s own Zapad war games in October. One wonders whether this pointless game of tit-for-tat will continue until – like two-year-olds fighting over a toy – it all ends in tears.
Plans for NATO
The recent Department of Defense budget allotted significant funding for NATO activity against Russia, including, as reported by LN’s Andrew Moran, “$250 million to Ukraine for its lethal defense systems against Russia” and “$6.3 billion to boost the number of U.S. troops in Europe to deter Russian aggression.” While these contributions are in line with NATO’s overall agenda, they are at odds with Trump’s personal statements.
The President may be planning to use any bonhomie he develops with Putin as a bargaining chip to force NATO members to pay more into the pot or risk losing U.S. resources in its ongoing feud with Russia –though any additional NATO funds Trump manages to extract would ultimately be spent building up anti-Russian forces.
The president’s unpredictable and confrontational style has reportedly put NATO leaders on edge – will he throw a wrench in the works or will things go smoothly? Either way, the theater of international diplomacy will probably continue much as it has for decades.