The NATO summit that starts Wednesday will be shadowed entirely by Trump's irritation with the alliance and the inability or unwillingness of many of its members to set their military budgets at the recommended 2 percent of gross domestic product. Ahead of Trump's arrival in Brussels, he issued tweets linking his antipathy toward NATO with his broader anger over trade relations with the European Union:
European observers are worried by Trump's linkage of the two issues, a position still based on a misunderstanding of how the alliance works. “If it’s really a threat linking security to trade, that can destroy the basis of NATO,” said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador to NATO, to my colleague Michael Birnbaum.
“The fear is not only that Mr. Trump will spoil the ‘unity’ of the summit with harangues before flying to Helsinki for a far friendlier meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin,” observed The Washington Post’s editorial board. “It is that, having shrugged off the strong support for NATO among his national security team, he is bent on wrecking a multilateral organization he regards as obsolete and a means for European nations to freeload at the expense of the United States.”
Meanwhile, Trump has also made a habit of rebuffing allies like French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on issues including trade, climate change and the Iran deal. The tariffs he has slapped on European steel and aluminum, which took effect on Friday, seem likely to trigger a trade war.
Such moves have “been corrosive to relations with allies who increasingly believe that Trump — on trade, NATO and diplomacy — is undercutting the post-World War II order in pursuit of short-term, and likely illusory, wins,” my colleagues reported over the weekend.
“It’s like your parents questioning their love for you,” said Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the foreign-affairs committee in Germany’s Parliament, to the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser last month. “It’s already penetrated the subconscious.”
After Brussels, Trump heads to Britain for a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, whose government could be on the brink of collapse over internal disputes over Brexit. He will then travel to Helsinki for his first formal summit with Putin, a meeting Trump himself has quipped may be “the easiest of all.”
Despite the Trump administration’s insistence that its “America First” agenda does not really mean “America Alone,” Glasser noted, “increasingly, it is.”
In the months to come, Trump's stop in Brussels may only be remembered as a footnote to the Putin meeting. “Because the meeting occurs after the NATO summit, any achievements in Brussels could be easily wiped out by promises Trump makes to Putin on a whim,” wrote Rachel Rizzo of the Center for New American Security in Washington. “Given Trump’s negotiating style, allies are rightly concerned that he may tell Putin that he will remove some U.S. troops from Eastern Europe, or halt U.S. participation in NATO exercises as a sign of good will. This would send European allies into a frenzy.”
There are also fears Trump could somehow recognize Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. “It’s such a fundamental issue,” a senior NATO diplomat told Birnbaum. “It would legitimize a whole range of actions. If you have the power, the raw conventional military power, you can do what you want.”
“Now I’m depressed,” the diplomat added. “The fact that we’re even thinking about it.”
Some American allies have tried to push back. Ahead of Trump's arrival, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg offered a polite, if anodyne, defense of the alliance, published by the Wall Street Journal.
“After many years of decline, allies have ended the cuts and started to increase national defense spending,” he wrote, arguing indeed Europe is doing far more to buttress its own collective security. “Last year NATO allies boosted their defense budgets by a combined 5.2 percent, the biggest increase, in real terms, in a quarter of a century. Now 2018 will be the fourth consecutive year of rising spending.”
Stoltenberg concluded “it’s no secret that there are differences among NATO countries on serious issues such as trade, climate change and the Iran nuclear deal,” but he insisted the West’s shared history has “taught a simple yet powerful lesson: United, we are stronger and safer.”
“If the Europeans parked a brand-new aircraft carrier off the coast of Mar-a-Lago and tossed the keys onto the 18th green, Trump would simply charge them greens fees,” wrote Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “In the end, he doesn’t believe in the idea that America should defend Europe, so why should the United States pay anything at all? He is only interested in it if it brings in a profit.”
“Dear President Trump: America does not have and will not have a better ally than Europe. Today Europeans spend on defense many times more than Russia and as much as China,” Tusk said. He urged Trump to think more clearly about “who is your strategic friend and who is your strategic problem,” a direct nod to the coming summit with Putin.
“Dear America, appreciate your allies,” Tusk said. “After all, you don’t have that many.”