Carnegie Europe was on the ground at the NATO leaders meeting in Brussels on May 25, giving readers exclusive insights into the high-level event.
What a dinner!
If anyone had hoped that U.S. President Donald Trump would lay off from criticizing NATO allies when the 28 leaders sat down for dinner on May 25, they were in for a big mistake. Just as he harangued them during the official opening ceremony in the alliance’s new headquarters for spending too little on defense—and, by the way, for owing arrears to the United States—he continued in that vein during the meal. It was as if Trump was warning them to pay up, or else.
That “else” is about America’s security guarantee, which it has extended to the country’s European allies ever since NATO was founded back in 1949.
Successive U.S. presidents have never thought of questioning that guarantee. It was in their interests to have a strong transatlantic alliance based on democracy, values, and interests. Nor have successive American presidents questioned the collective defense commitment enshrined in Article 5 of NATO’s founding Washington Treaty. Any ally threatened or under attack is protected by its allies.
Trump apparently made no mention of Article 5 or collective defense in Brussels, not even during the leaders’ dinner. His visit to NATO has left a bitter taste and not a few hurt shoulders. The way that Trump literally pushed his way past Duško Marković, the president of Montenegro, in order to be up at the front of the group rather than mingle with leaders rankled not a few diplomats. It’s as if the person who spent the most should be the most prominent.
Trump, who also met EU leaders, left several impressions that, at least for now, do not bode well for relations between the United States and Europe.
The first is that that he sees security in terms of a business transaction.
Yes, the Europeans have taken American security guarantees for granted. They have spent too little on defense. When they do spend, they do little to reduce the number of weapons systems across the continent. The fact that the Europeans have seventeen different main battle tanks, 20 different fighter planes, 29 different destroyers/frigates, and 20 different torpedo systems speaks volumes. These structures are wasteful. They are reducing interoperability, not encouraging it.
So there is plenty of room for criticism and there is plenty of room for efficiencies and pooling and sharing. European finance and defense ministries together need to deal with this wasteful duplication.
But if Trump is linking the level of European defense spending to collective defense then NATO is in serious trouble. Vladimir Putin’s goal of weakening alliance solidarity will be made much easier.
This leads to Trump’s view of Russia. It was brought up during his meetings with EU leaders when they also discussed Ukraine. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, was not at all convinced that Trump understood what Russia was doing in Ukraine, not to mention why the Europeans had to be constantly on their guard against Russian disinformation campaigns and hybrid warfare.
“I’m not 100 percent sure that we can say today—we meaning Mr. President and myself—that we have a common position, common opinion about Russia,” Tusk said. Tusk added there were also differences over climate and trade.
On the trade issue, the Europeans can forget about reaching a deal with the United States. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, designed to build a unique pact between the United States and the EU, was going nowhere before Trump was elected. Any chances of reviving it now are gone.
As shown by his views of multilateral agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, Trump prefers bilateral deals. According to Der Spiegel, the fact that he called Germany “very bad” during talks with EU officials because of the country’s huge car exports to the United States suggests confirms the president’s protectionist outlook.
There were some areas of agreement. The Americans and the Europeans have no illusions about terrorism and how they have to cooperate much more closely to protect their citizens. “The NATO of the future must include a great focus on terrorism and immigration,” Trump said. One European diplomat said he got the impression that Trump linked these two issues together.
Several European leaders will get the chance to meet Trump again at the G7 summit, which takes place May 26-27 in Sicily. No doubt security and trade, as well as climate, will figure high during those talks. This time round, fresh from their encounters with the American president in Brussels, the Europeans will have no illusions about the state of the transatlantic relationship. But do they have any expectations?
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