North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO’s) European leaders were left reeling after one of the most divisive summits in the organisation’s 69-year history, at which Donald Trump set a January deadline for them to increase defence spending and hinted that the US might quit the alliance if they failed to meet it.
While other NATO members treated his warnings as a bluff, they left the Brussels summit stunned at the end of two days of mayhem, almost all of it orchestrated by Trump. Afterwards, at a hastily convened press conference, Trump claimed he had emerged victorious, saying European leaders had caved in to his demands, something both the French and Germans later denied. He said they had agreed to reach the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence faster than previously planned, and he claimed financial commitments would increase beyond that in the future. “I can tell you that NATO now is a really fine-tuned machine. People are paying money that they never paid before. They’re happy to do it. And the United States is being treated much more fairly,” he said. The invectives detracted from the summit’s goal of projecting unity in the face of Russian aggression, even as Trump and NATO leaders jointly agreed to bolster their defense and deterrence capabilities to head off Russian threats. Instead, Trump fueled a narrative of discord within the alliance, just days before he headed to Helsinki to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump’s opening act at NATO reignited concerns about Trump’s commitment to the NATO alliance, building on a sense of unease among European allies sparked by trade tensions and Trump’s increasingly critical rhetoric.
Trump’s broadside at Germany, accusing the country of being “totally controlled by” and “a captive of Russia”, amounted to a stunning attack on Germany’s sovereignty and a rebuke of its leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel. He followed up these comments with a demand that NATO members increase their defence spending “immediately.” And during the closed session, he offered a veiled threat about the fate of the US role in NATO if members did not ramp up their military spending. Trump told reporters that he told the allies would “be very unhappy” unless they upped their efforts, but just like last year when he publicly berated NATO members for lackluster defence spending; Trump emerged from the summit reaffirming the US commitment to the military alliance. “I believe in NATO, I think NATO is a very important and probably the greatest ever done,” Trump declared during his exit news conference. Trump’s claims that he secured commitments from the alliance’s full membership to ramp up defence spending to 2% of each country’s GDP and sooner than the 2024 timeline were quickly debunked by his counterparts at NATO. Trump’s emergency session on defence spending generated no new commitments. Instead, allies had already pledged in a communique to continue ramping up defence spending to improve burden-sharing and meet the 2024 target. But none of that appeared to matter to Trump, who seemed more concerned with the appearance of a win and projecting strength on the world stage to the potential delight of the supporters of his “America First” vision back home.
Trump kicked off his second day by confidently strolling into a meeting of NATO heads of state about 30 minutes after the meeting got underway, with cameras capturing his solo march through NATO headquarters. The NATO alliance agreed during the summit to reinforce its deterrence and defence to counter Russian aggression, vowed to boost its counterterrorism capacity and approved a plan to improve mobilization capabilities. The communique also homed in on the need for NATO allies to boost their defense spending, with allies reiterating their commitment to meeting the 2024 pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defence. The summit also saw NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg credit Trump for increase in defense spending among NATO allies and touting the number of allies that have since put out specific plans to meet the 2% target, but that and other commitments were largely overshadowed by Trump’s headline-grabbing comments and subsequent claims, overshadowing concrete US and NATO deliverables. Arriving at NATO headquarters only hours after Trump singled out Germany for criticism, Merkel said: “I have experienced myself how a part of Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union. “I am very happy that today we are united in freedom, the Federal Republic of Germany. Because of that we can say that we can make our independent policies and make independent decisions. That is very good, especially for people in eastern Germany.” She also hit back at Trump’s criticism that Germany contributed too little to European defence. “Germany does a lot for NATO,” she said.
“Germany is the second largest provider of troops, the largest part of our military capacity is offered to NATO and until today we have a strong engagement towards Afghanistan. In that we also defend the interests of the United States.”
While Trump’s isolation might mainly play to his relatively narrow base, his critique of NATO allies touches a much bigger nerve. Few share Trump’s view of NATO as a kind of Mafioso protection racket, but many Americans, including foreign policy experts, have long been frustrated over the low defence budgets of many European member states. Moreover, Republicans have long seen NATO in much less favourable terms than Democrats. In fact, last year only a minority of Republicans (47%) had a favourable view of the organisation. It’s also true, however, that this president is not the first to push the Europeans to contribute more to their defense, but his current approach has yielded better results than the previous American presidents’ slightly exasperated pontifications about European free riding.
Julie Smith, a former Obama-administration official now at the Center for a New American Security, views Trump’s handling of the transatlantic alliance with skepticism. “Each month that moves by, we lose the ability to snap back and return to normal,” she told. But even she now acknowledges that Trump’s bluster (alongside Vladimir Putin’s extracurricular activities in Ukraine) has spurred Europeans to increase their defence spending. In fact, the number of countries laying out firm plans to meet the 2 percent target by 2024 has more than tripled, from 5 in 2014 to 16 today. (As of now, the United States, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Poland, and Romania are the only NATO members spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. And the United States actually spends far more than 3.6 percent.) If European countries aren’t meeting their commitments, at least there’s momentum toward improvement. Experts debate the effectiveness of the 2 percent target; some argue that it neglects to mention the actual impact of defense spending. While they have a good point that this metric doesn’t say too much, our European allies should be capable of, say, maintaining a fleet of functioning fighter jets.
However effective Trump’s hectoring of America’s allies to spend more on defense might be (and the precise impact is not clear, especially considering that Russia’s activities in Ukraine have also played a role), he should tune it down a notch or otherwise risk overplaying his hand.
The NATO summit was also an opportunity to follow up on EU-NATO cooperation. The EU and NATO signed a new joint declaration just ahead of the summit on 10 July 2018. The summit was also an occasion to take stock of progress achieved since the previous 2016 Warsaw and 2017 Brussels summits. The fact that Europeans believe that Trump will deliver on his promises has resulted in greater burden sharing among NATO members, a good result. But, to maintain credibility, he could also be obligated to follow through on other promises or threats, such as revoking America’s security guarantees if NATO members don’t pony up. The point of the 2 percent goal is to maintain an alliance that’s prepared to face new threats, but what good is this spending if there’s no longer any political will to act in lockstep? President Donald Trump and President Jean-Claude Juncker signed a new EU-NATO joint declaration with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, ahead of the summit on 10 July. The new joint declaration sets out a shared vision of how the EU and NATO will act together against common security threats.