Allies on Pins and Needles as Trump Arrives in London

Trump's commitment to the NATO alliance will be tested again, even as other countries agree to boost defense spending.

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump on Monday in London
AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
Dec. 2, 2019, 8 p.m.

President Trump arrived Monday in London for a NATO summit already being overshadowed by fissures within the alliance and fears that the president will once again disrupt the proceedings with more loud demands for others to relieve America's burden of leadership.

Stung by his bluster and tough talk at last year’s alliance summit in Brussels, the other leaders had hoped they had assured a peaceful time in London by downgrading and shortening this year’s meeting and giving him a symbolic victory on NATO’s budget. There were some signs of success for this strategy in the president’s comments Monday. Both at his departure from the White House and in a tweet while aboard Air Force One, Trump claimed personal victory for more allies increasing their spending.

“It has not been a fair situation for us because we pay far too much, as you know,” he told reporters on the South Lawn. “I was responsible for getting over $130 billion extra from other countries that we protect that weren’t paying. They were delinquent.” On Twitter, he complained that “in the 3 decades before my election, NATO spending declined by two-thirds” and that, as a result of his prodding, NATO spending has increased. By going back three decades to measure spending, he included years before the end of the Cold War when NATO spending was at its peak.

Most NATO spending is measured by weighing the defense budgets of the individual alliance members. The allies contribute only a small amount to the organization's common budget. Changes in that smaller budget allowed the White House to claim another pre-summit victory last week, when NATO agreed to drop the U.S. contribution to it from 22 percent to only 16 percent, the same as Germany.

But even while the other leaders hoped that they had contained the combustible Trump, threats to the London summit were coming from both Europe and Asia. In an interview with The Economist last month, French President Emmanuel Macron took a not-so-veiled shot at Trump’s anti-NATO positions and warned that the alliance is experiencing “brain death.” He also targeted fellow NATO member Turkey for its recent military moves. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fired back at Macron on Friday, saying, “I am talking to ... Macron and I will also say this at NATO. First of all, have your own brain death checked. These statements are suitable only to people like you who are in a state of brain death.”

Even with the Macron-Erdoğan sideshow, Trump remained the biggest worry for summit planners. Just last month, he tweeted that “the U.S. is always the ‘sucker’ on NATO.” NBC raised new concerns when it reported contents of a private speech delivered to a hedge fund last month by former Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton. In the speech, Bolton warned that if Trump is reelected he could feel free enough in a second term to “go full isolationist” and withdraw the United States from NATO and other alliances.

That would be in line with past comments by Trump. In the campaign, he called the alliance “obsolete.” As he flew into Brussels for last year’s summit, he began a tweet, “What good is NATO....” At the summit, he publicly attacked Germany and made fresh demands on spending. Also last year, he raised doubts about his view of Article 5, the bedrock provision that requires all members of the alliance to respond to an attack on any one of them. He would not promise that the United States would respond to an attack on Montenegro, parroting a Russian talking point by calling Montenegrins a “very aggressive people” who want to drag the United States into “World War III.”

Everything in this volatile mix has Jim Townsend, who spent eight years in the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO, wondering why the summit is being held in the first place. “This is not a good time and place to pull everything together,” said Townsend, who currently is at the bipartisan Center for a New American Security. “It is like a NASCAR race. No one is watching the race to see who the winner is. They are watching because they want to see a big car pileup. ... Everyone is just making bets on who is going to blow the summit up.”

That the summit comes in the heat of impeachment hearings back home simply complicates the president’s role in London. “When Trump walks in, I’m sure they will look at him and there will be thought bubbles over their heads of, ‘How long will he be around?'" said Townsend. “Most Europeans don’t understand our impeachment process ... so a lot of them will have no idea what to think about his longevity.”

Europeans are paying close attention to the 2020 campaign in the United States, though, according to Michael O’Hanlon, director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He said they have been watching polls that show Trump holding his own. “It would be hard for a European leader to conclude that they are dealing with a lame duck or even a fundamentally weakened president.”

Trump complained Monday about Democrats scheduling an impeachment hearing while he is on what he called “one of the most important journeys” of his presidency. But it also offers him an opportunity to steal the spotlight. “This trip is really for President Trump a chance to, in some ways, escape the impeachment inquiry here and focus on what he now increasingly views as his own personal foreign policy success, and that is NATO’s increased defense spending,” said Heather Conley, who was deputy assistant secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian affairs in President George W. Bush’s first term and is now director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The president will be closely watched on the sidelines of the summit. He does not have a meeting scheduled with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But there is great concern he will meddle in the British election, which comes only a week after the NATO meeting. Trump, a Johnson supporter, is deeply unpopular in England. “I am worried,” said Rachel Rizzo, an adjunct fellow at CNAS’s Transatlantic Security Program, “that he is going to inadvertently wade into British politics. With just a week to go before the UK election, it is important that he keeps his mouth shut and doesn’t try to unfairly influence the election.”

Trump will meet with a leader he clashed with in August, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. He had been scheduled to make a state visit to Denmark when he floated the idea of the United States buying Greenland from Denmark. Frederiksen's response was blunt: “Greenland is not for sale.” Trump said that statement was “nasty” and canceled his trip. The London meeting is meant to signal that peace has been restored between the two longtime allies. Greenland, though, remains off the market.

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