Donald Trump’s first full NATO summit is expected to be contentious, if not downright hostile. The U.S. president’s sole goal for Brussels appears to be hammering allies on their defense spending, and it’s even less clear what he wants to do with the remainder of his Europe trip, which includes meetings with a severely weakened Theresa May and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. What should Europe watchers expect?
Trump’s animosity toward some of the United States’ closest allies and partners in Europe is straining the multinational institutions upon which the U.S.-European relationship is built. He has had borderline obsessive focus on NATO allies’ defense budgets since the beginning of his presidency, and has no problem railing on allies to spend more. Recently, Trump sent a harsh letter to some of the allies excoriating them for not spending enough, saying it is “increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries do not share NATO’s collective security.” When allies meet in Brussels, more harsh words are to be expected.
By all means, Europe must be able to provide for its own defense, and U.S. calls to spend more are neither new nor unwarranted. But Trump is unpopular in Europe, and his constant bullying of NATO allies may actually make it harder for European leaders to gain public support to increase defense spending lest they be seen as kowtowing to the U.S. president. The good news is that Europe recognizes its need to spend more—NATO has seen four consecutive years of allied real increases in defense spending, with each ally not only spending more, but contributing more to NATO missions and operations. Because of this, it is time for the U.S. president to declare victory on the defense spending front and move on to more important issues. Much could be accomplished at this summit, but if Trump only focuses on money, it will be a missed opportunity for the U.S. to reaffirm its commitment to European allies. Unfortunately, expectations are not high.
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