Four things to know ahead of the NATO Summit

Our experts pick out four main topics to pay attention to ahead of the NATO Summit in Brussels 

The NATO Summit takes place in Brussels next week, on 11-12 July. A brief selection from our experts reveals the underlying trend of this summit is the unpredictability of Donald Trump. Which Trump we see – the one heckling his European allies or the one already claiming huge successes – will matter in the short term. It will affect Europe’s defence plans, encourage transactional side payments, jeopardize military presence on the eastern side of the continent, and perhaps even disrupt the aspirations of those hoping to join the alliance. The uncertainty is surely an advantage for the American president, but NATO has real problems that need addressing at this summit. Beyond the Trump reality show, the question for the allies is whether they will even get around to these issues and, if they don’t, how will NATO maintain alliance solidarity? 

Trump’s choice to make

US President Donald Trump has a genuine choice to make in Brussels. He is the wild card at any meeting he attends, is moody and impulsive: so much depends on his feelings at the moment and on the view of the last person he talked to. He has often claimed that the US security commitment to Europe is a rip-off for the American taxpayer and sees little value in the alliance. So, he could use the summit as yet another platform to trash the Europeans as free-riders and demand that they pay ever more for US protection – to include making trade concessions to the United States –lest the US simply abandon them. But because he is more frustrated by Europe’s stance on trade than its role in NATO, he could decide to use the opportunity to claim that he has already been successful (much more so than Barack Obama) in getting Europeans to pay more for defence.

No one knows which choice Trump will make, probably even including his own staff and Trump himself, but in the short term it will matter a great deal which Trump shows up. Alliance solidarity is already buckling under the weight of Trump’s numerous broadsides. If he chooses the highly symbolic occasion of the NATO summit to launch another public attack, European governments will give up on America and move forward with their contingency planning to replace the US security guarantee in Europe. If he opts to claim success, European governments will continue their efforts to placate him and we will see many more initiatives, like that of Poland, to entice greater bilateral US security contribution by offering transactional side payments. Such crass arrangements, akin to paying mercenaries, will make summit meetings with Trump easier, but they will also erode alliance solidarity over the long-term.

His only interest in the transatlantic relationship is to get Europeans to buy more from, and sell less to, the US.

One piece of good news – why bother?

One piece of positive news in the upcoming summit, which would otherwise qualify as successful if it produces no news, will be the opening of membership negotiations with Macedonia. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said this week that he “hoped” NATO leaders at the summit would decide to open accession talks, which would then conclude with ratifications by the allies after a successful referendum in Macedonia over the name agreement in the fall.

The air of unpredictability brought by leaders like Erdogan and Trump impacts all topics, so observers hope that it will not affect Macedonia’s accession to NATO. But if US leadership is willing to examine the Swedish model of partnership with NATO, why bother over blocking Macedonia?

Damage to Europe’s defence strategy

Two years ago, NATO’s summit in Warsaw seemed finally to have drawn a line under decades of US mistrust of EU defence ambitions. “NATO recognises the importance of a stronger and more capable European defence, which will lead to a stronger NATO” declared the communique – and supported the statement with a comprehensive programme for NATO-EU defence cooperation. But now we have Donald Trump – a man whose dislike of the EU is visceral – “the European Union, of course, was set up to take advantage of the United States. To attack our piggy bank,” he recently told a campaign rally. His only interest in the transatlantic relationship is to get Europeans to buy more from, and sell less to, the US. Despite Trump’s talk of fair burden-sharing, his real agenda is to get European allies to spend more on US hardware.

But, with less than perfect timing, the EU’s own plans to strengthen Europe’s defence industry (based on the new European Defence Fund) have acquired a newly-protectionist flavour. No wonder NATO’s Secretary-General has reverted to dark talk of the “risks” of EU defence efforts. With Trump set to meet Putin right after the NATO Summit, the stage seems set for a re-run of the recent G7 meeting: the US president rows with his allies and destabilises a key Western institution, before heading off to embrace a hostile autocrat.

Trump’s administration is keen to keep NATO’s Eastern frontier strong and help countries face ‘growing pressure’ from Russia.

All quiet on the Polish front

Poland is relatively relaxed regarding the NATO Summit next week, and much more concerned about domestic challenges plaguing the country. Its main goal now is to safeguard the achievements of past summits in Wales and Warsaw. In Wales, allies pledged to move towards the target to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defence, and Poland is one of the few NATO countries that already meets this target. While Donald Trump scolded his allies for free-riding in May 2017, he also later lavishly praised Poland for being “among the most committed members of the NATO alliance”. In October 2017 Poland’s president signed a law that foresees steadily increasing defence spending further, to reach 2.5 percent of GDP by 2030. At the upcoming Brussels meeting, a deja-vu is very likely to occur, with Trump lecturing allies who underspend, and saluting those who keep to their commitments.

Even more importantly for Poland, NATO decided in 2016 to enhance its military presence in the east. As a result, battle groups have now been deployed in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. It is crucial for Poland to keep them and that should not be a problem as Trump’s administration is keen to keep NATO’s Eastern frontier strong and help countries face ‘growing pressure’ from Russia.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Research Director
Director, US Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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