With leaders of NATO member countries set to meet for a “mini-summit,” experts from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Transatlantic Security Program – Julianne Smith, James Townsend, Jacqueline Ramos, and Rachel Rizzo – provide previews of what to expect.
While the official agenda for tomorrow’s NATO mini-summit includes just two topics – burden-sharing and counterterrorism cooperation – three other issues loom large. The first is Article 5, the Alliance’s pledge that an attack on one is an attack on all. President Trump’s cabinet has already pledged its unwavering support to Article 5, but the allies have noted with concern that Trump himself has yet to do so. Allies will be listening carefully to see if Trump mentions Article 5 in his opening remarks. The second issue is Afghanistan. Allies know that the United States is debating another surge there. They also understand that they will likely be asked to do more if the United States moves forward with those plans. But before committing, the allies will want a strategy, something the U.S. administration has not yet shared. Finally, Russia is another subject that will capture the minds of those gathered around the table in Brussels tomorrow. Allies are eager to learn where the administration wants to take its relationship with Russia and how they fit into that strategy.
Bonus issue: no one should forget that Trump will also meet with the EU, an institution some in his administration would like to see fade into the history books. Watch that meeting for “chemistry” and some indication that Trump sees value in supporting the EU-U.S. relationship going forward.
The most important deliverable for the NATO mini-summit tomorrow is the “family photo”: that standard image of the heads of state and government standing together with the NATO Secretary General, all smiles as they think about the dinner and wine to come. This time, however, that photo is a keeper. With Trump standing on one side and Emmanuel Macron standing on the other, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg will have accomplished a miracle: a unified Alliance no longer obsolete … at least for a photo op! But missing from the photo will be one character missing from the dinner as well … Vladimir Putin. While he won’t be sitting at the table, or even be on the agenda, he will be in the room as Allies will listen for any hint from President Trump about what he really thinks about Russia. Friend or foe? Partner or threat? All will seek reassurance that the author of The Art of the Deal will not be cutting a separate deal with Putin at their expense. Will that reassurance come along with Trump’s blandishments to spend more on defense?
NATO meetings for heads of state and government provide periodic opportunities to evaluate and guide the strategic direction of the Alliance. Given President Trump's lack of substantive background with NATO and continuing European concerns about his commitment to the Alliance, the expectation bar for the meeting's productivity should be set low. Key discussion topics will include counterterrorism – all the more important given the recent events in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe – counter-ISIL activities and NATO's potential role therein, and greater burden-sharing (financially and operationally) among Allies. President Trump may extract a general agreement that more equitable burden-sharing is necessary, but major concrete commitments from Allies are unlikely. It is expected that the U.K.'s pending withdrawal from the EU, not to mention the political health of the EU itself, will color the tenor of the meeting as well.
President Trump and other NATO leaders will convene tomorrow over dinner in Brussels to discuss two primary topics: counterterrorism and burden-sharing. If past is prologue, Trump will use softer rhetoric than he used on the campaign trail and will probably laud NATO for correcting its former trajectory toward obsolescence. But he will also inevitably harp on Europeans to meet the 2 percent of GDP defense spending target agreed upon by NATO allies in 2014. This is not a new talking point; Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to push Europeans to increase defense spending. At tomorrow’s meeting, however, he must be sure to go beyond the 2 percent talking point: First, he should publicly recognize the great strides many NATO allies have made in terms of increased capabilities and defense spending over the past decade. Failure to do so diminishes the efforts made by Europeans and increases the risk of continuing to be hyper-focused on an over simplistic hard number measurement. Second, Trump must explicitly voice his support for NATO’s collective defense clause, Article 5. This is the bedrock of the NATO alliance, stating that “an attack against one ally is an attack against all allies.” Europeans, Americans, and perhaps most importantly, Vladimir Putin, will be listening to Trump carefully tomorrow.
Smith, Townsend, Ramos, and Rizzo are available for interviews. To arrange one, please contact Neal Urwitz at 202-457-9409 or firstname.lastname@example.org.