In normal times, Nato’s 70th anniversary would bring alliance leaders together for elaborate ceremonies, self-congratulatory speeches and declarations of unshakable unity. Not when they’re meeting in Donald Trump’s Washington.
Instead, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has opted for a more subdued commemoration this week. As foreign ministers gather at the State Department and fan out across town for speeches and conferences, they’ll be watching their Twitter feeds to see whether President Trump uses the occasion to belittle their efforts and question their cause.
“Nato is not looking for a high-profile event with Donald Trump,” said Doug Lute, a former US ambassador to the alliance during the Obama administration. “This is unprecedented. We’re at the 70th anniversary but the first time where allies have doubted the commitment of the American president.”
These aren’t happy days for Nato. Trump has repeatedly questioned the utility of the alliance to his “American First” foreign policy and regularly complains that the US is being short-changed because few other members meet the goal of spending at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense.
WHITE HOUSE MEETING
He may renew those complaints on Tuesday, when Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is scheduled to meet with the president at the White House. So far Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, has succeeded in finessing Trump’s criticism by showering him with praise and credit.
“I expect that the message from President Trump will be that the United States is committed to Nato – that Nato is important for our shared security – but at the same that we need a fairer sharing of the burden,” Stoltenberg told reporters on Monday in Brussels about the planned talks at the White House. “This has been a very consistent message of President Trump.”
At a Nato summit in Brussels in July, Trump hurled insults at members and made false claims that he’d extracted promises of new defense spending. Rather than taking umbrage, Stoltenberg said Trump has created a “new sense of urgency” in the debate over Nato members’ military budgets.
“All allies have heard President Trump’s message loud and clear,” Stoltenberg told reporters at the time, in an echo of past efforts by France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to assuage the president through flattery. That political acumen may have helped Stoltenberg, 60, win an extension of his term last week to 2022.
Stoltenberg may be more tempted to allude to differences over Trump’s policies when he speaks to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, as Macron did in an appearance before lawmakers last April.
On Monday, Stoltenberg said members of the 29-nation Nato “disagree on many issues” but such differences are neither new nor unusual for an alliance made up of democracies.
“The strength of Nato is that, despite these differences, we have always been able to unite around our core task and that is to protect and defend each other,” he said.
But Secretary of State Michael Pompeo is sure to echo Trump’s criticism of other Nato members’ defense spending when he hosts his counterparts at the State Department on Thursday.
“There’s real value in the partnership with Western countries that share our democratic values,” Pompeo said Thursday at the National Review Institute Ideas Forum in Washington. “There is also real value in a country that is wealthy spending more than 1.25% of its GDP on defense.”
Exacerbating the differences over defence spending is a push by the Trump administration for allies that host US troops to pay far more for their presence, even floating an idea known as “Cost Plus 50” – for governments to pay the full cost, plus a 50% premium.
And in a letter this month, US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell threatened to cut back on intelligence sharing with some Nato allies if they buy equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies for new 5G telecom networks. The US says the equipment can be used by the government in Beijing to spy on the West.
Nato is also under unprecedented strain given divisions over how best to confront Russia. The alliance so far has been able to maintain unity in putting the blame squarely on Russia for violations of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which the US pledged to withdraw from in February.
That unity may crumble with the approach of 2021, when another crucial arms agreement, the New START deal, is set to expire. The US is also pushing to stiffen fellow members’ resolve in confronting one of their own, Turkey, which has committed to buying a Russian missile-defense system.
All of this makes Stoltenberg’s efforts to paper over the strains between Trump and other members of the alliance a difficult diplomatic feat.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government released a budget proposal last month that set out a preliminary goal to spend 1.5% of GDP on the military by 2024 and to move only gradually toward the Nato promise of 2%.
‘MOST URGENT’ PROBLEM
“That’s not enough for the US president, I can understand that,” Merkel said.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, the US ambassador to Nato, praised recent increases in German defense spending while pressing for more.
“Germany is stepping up at a greater pace than they have in the past, but there is still much more to do for Germany,” Hutchison told reporters on Monday in Brussels.
The strains have elicited calls of concern from people like Lute, who was co-author of a recent report which argued that Nato allies see Trump “as the Alliance’s most urgent, and often most difficult, problem.”
Pompeo, who studied under Lute when he was a cadet at West Point and later served with him in the Army in West Germany, rejects those dire warnings.
“I have great respect for him, he’s just simply wrong,” Pompeo said in congressional testimony on March 27. “We’ve worked diligently to make Nato stronger. I am convinced that we have done so.”