Since U.S. President Donald Trump personally and publicly stated on February 6 that his administration “strongly [supports]” NATO, the transatlantic community can finally turn to addressing the myriad challenges confronting European and North American security. In May, the alliance’s heads of state and government will gather in Brussels, where they’ll likely ratify recently implemented initiatives and attempt to patch over the tensions caused by Trump’s previous comments about the alliance. Although dramatically new initiatives are unlikely, the meeting will nonetheless be important—just how important will depend on the degree to which the alliance can look beyond 2017.
Transatlantic security priorities will be determined largely by the electoral calendar, so the Brussels summit will mark time, not necessarily break new ground. The March 2017 parliamentary election in the Netherlands will have ended, and presumably coalition negotiations will have resulted in a new government. In France, the presidential election will have concluded, although it’s unlikely the new administration in the Élysée Palace will have its sea legs yet. In Germany, the parliamentary election campaign will not have formally begun, but the polls will be on everyone’s minds. All of this means that key European allies will be reluctant to endorse major new initiatives. Indeed, NATO’s May meeting may not be a full-blown summit at all.
This is unfortunate. The meeting’s timing would have been better after the major European electoral action of 2017 is over and politicians are on firmer ground. Nevertheless, the May gathering will be important, and its agenda will take shape quickly. Washington, through new Defense Secretary James Mattis, will likely insist on including several agenda items of importance to the Trump administration.
High on that list is defense burden sharing. Even though NATO’s goal for allies to spend the equivalent of 2 percent of their GDP on defense is largely arbitrary and not a very useful measure of burden sharing, the United States is right to keep pushing European allies to take on more of the defense burden. This issue garnered significant attention during NATO’s Wales summit in 2014, when alliance members recommitted to reaching the target.
Even so, it’s clear that Trump will continue to cajole allies to do more. The problem is that browbeating has never worked, and there’s no reason to think that it will this time. The most important factor in explaining increases in European defense spending since 2014 is threat perception. If Washington wants to spur further defense spending increases from its European allies, it should emphasize eliminating intelligence-sharing barriers, so that allied leaders and decisionmakers are well informed, as well as tackling misinformation in the public realm, so that citizens are better informed of the true security threats confronting Europe.
Another item that Washington is sure to want on the agenda is NATO’s role in anti- and counterterrorism. Despite disagreement among allied capitals on the alliance’s proper role in combating the self-proclaimed Islamic State, NATO has been contributing in various ways to the fight against global terrorism. NATO has provided airborne warning and control system (AWACS) surveillance data to aid in fighting the Islamic State, enhanced intelligence sharing, promoted capabilities development, provided resilience training, and conducted countertrafficking operations at sea. Moreover, every European ally has joined the anti–Islamic State coalition, and many are making major contributions to operations in and over Iraq and Syria. Given all of this, it is not clear whether Washington can persuade the allies to do more that would make a substantive difference on the ground.
There are three more topics that should be on NATO’s agenda in May. First, there should be an unequivocal, full-throated commitment by the United States to fulfill its obligations under the NATO treaty. Trump created significant worries in Europe by tying U.S. support for collective defense to the willingness of member states to “pay their fair share.” While it’s clear that many European member states can do more on defense, it’s equally clear that any caveats on the U.S. commitment to European defense undermine deterrence vis-à-vis Russia and corrode assurance in all allied capitals. The president’s brief remarks about NATO on February 6 were a step in this direction. What’s needed now is a fuller presidential statement, in Europe, with allies by his side.
Second, the alliance should commit to reinforcing and refining NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe. Battle groups in the Baltic states and Poland are a great start to strengthening the alliance’s deterrent posture. Although the multinational character of the battlegroups—eighteen of the 28 members will contribute boots on the ground—may weaken their operational effectiveness, the strength of allied solidarity these deployments convey more than makes up for any diminished capability.
That said, the battle groups are only one part of what the alliance needs to do to reinforce deterrence and assurance in the face of continuing Russian provocations. The alliance should address how these units support cyberwarfare and information operations, how they’ll respond to hybrid threats, what role they’ll play in assisting civilian authorities, how they might interact with nonallied partners like Sweden and Finland, and how they might turn the tables on Russia in terms of anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the event of a crisis.
Finally, the alliance needs a new strategic approach toward Russia. The twenty-five-year-old strategy of engagement and partnership has failed, and Russia remains more willing and able than ever to threaten vital Western interests without provocation. Understandably, given their proximity, European allies will insist on some degree of diplomacy and outreach in any new strategy toward Moscow. Judging from history, such a reset is highly likely to fail, but this doesn’t make it any less necessary. It’s the price for Washington to pay to get Europe to sign on to a more competitive approach toward Russia, one that seeks to reduce Moscow’s leverage vis-à-vis key Western interests.
The transatlantic security agenda is a full one, and there will be important issues to discuss at NATO’s meeting in May. Thankfully, the distraction of whether Trump values the alliance appears to be resolved. That should enable the United States and its European allies to get on with strengthening the primary means by which they defend their common interests.
John R. Deni is a research professor of security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and an adjunct professor at the American University’s School of International Service. The views expressed here are his alone.