Carnegie Europe was on the ground at the 2018 NATO summit in Brussels, offering readers exclusive access to the high-level discussions as they unfold.
Adam BalcerForeign policy project manager at WiseEuropa
President Trump is right on the issue of NATO members’ insufficient military spending, but his “specific” position on Russia constitutes a considerably bigger challenge to the alliance’s security. Trump remains persistent in casting doubts, using Russian official statements as evidence (sic!) on U.S. intelligence assessments that Russia meddled in the American presidential elections. On the other hand, Trump congratulated Putin after his victory in the rigged Russian elections and invited him to the United States. Trump also called for Russia to be allowed back into the G8. According to Trump, Russia has invested heavily in Crimea since its annexation and the peninsula should probably belong to Russia anyway, because... everyone there speaks Russian. Trump even left the door open to recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, saying that such a move would be up for discussion during his meeting with Putin in Helsinki. That bilateral is scheduled immediately after the NATO summit. The mere fact of the Helsinki meeting is a boost for Moscow’s efforts to ease its international isolation.
With Trump, all business is personal. Taking into consideration the outcome of the Singapore meeting between Trump and Kim, it is easy to imagine the U.S. president letting Putin talk him into taking steps to undercut NATO.
Sophia BeschResearch fellow at the Centre for European Reform
It is up to European allies to determine whether Trump is wrong about NATO. Most agree with the U.S. president on the importance of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. But Trump’s single-minded focus on Europeans “paying up” in exchange for the U.S. security guarantee betrays a complete misunderstanding of NATO as an alliance of collective defense.
The danger of publicly singling out countries and their leaders is that it undermines solidarity and cohesion, NATO’s strongest assets. The risk is that European leaders feel bullied, that the 2 percent metric becomes toxic by association with Trump, and that populations misunderstand defense spending as a concession to the United States, rather than an important investment in European security.
But it is not the responsibility of the United States to communicate to European voters what their heads of state and governments have committed to as members of the alliance. European leaders must take ownership of NATO, its requirements, and its numerous achievements.
If instead they allow this summit and future ones to be shaped by the Trumpian view of the alliance then they will prove him right: NATO will become a protection racket, with Europeans vying for the attention and embrace of the United States.
Carl BildtCo-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations
It would be easier to answer the question if we knew what Trump thinks of NATO.
In all probability he dislikes it in the same way that he dislikes other multilateral organizations. He is said to have stated that it is as bad as NAFTA, and NAFTA belongs to the category of worst agreements ever.
Then he is of course wrong in evidently believing that allies owe the United States money, and that they should all immediately pay 2 percent of their GDP to the organization. He is unlikely to have any deeper interest in how NATO really works.
On contributions to the defense of Europe, more needs to be done. But it should be noted that most U.S. defense spending isn’t directly related to Europe. Defense Secretary James Mattis has said that 60 percent of resources now go to the Pacific theater and that key U.S. installations in Europe have been more geared to supporting U.S. operations outside of Europe.
This is now starting to change, which should be applauded. But it is the UK, Canada, and Germany that are leading the important new battle groups in the Baltic states.
Ian BremmerPresident and founder of Eurasia Group
Trump’s correct that a majority of allies are significantly under-contributing—and will continue to happily do so if there are no consequences.
He’s wrong that Putin is a better target for his personal affections than, say, Macron, May, or Merkel, even though Putin will assuredly be around for longer.
Trump mistrusts multilateralism even though it was created and led by the United States. That’s the thinking behind his otherwise nonsensical suggestion that Macron leave the EU and do a better deal with the United States, and it’s why he’s wrong on NATO.
John R. DeniResearch 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
President Trump is mostly, tragically, and perhaps even catastrophically wrong. I say “mostly” because the one area where he’s right is in burden sharing. He gets the modalities wrong, but most of European NATO has failed to invest sufficiently in advanced military capabilities, exercises, infrastructure, and manpower. Nonetheless, Trump is only the latest U.S. leader to scold Europeans for inequitable defense burden sharing.
I say “tragically” because the president appears to misrepresent the views of the American public when it comes to attitudes toward NATO. A vast majority of Americans—as well as their Congressional representatives—support the alliance. Nonetheless, it remains difficult to convince Europeans that President Trump is not the vanguard of some fundamental shift in American attitudes toward the alliance.
Finally, I say “catastrophically” because the U.S. president has the potential—and, apparently, the inclination—to do long-term damage to NATO by (among other things) dramatically scaling down America’s political commitment and/or substantially cutting the U.S. forward military presence in Europe. Such moves would allow Russia to cement its political-military inroads in Europe and would mean permanently turning over vital infrastructure. The United States needs all the allies it can get right now as it engages in strategic competition with Russia and China. Ironically, the administration’s security and defense strategies get this right, but some of the president’s words and deeds undermine those documents—and concomitantly U.S. security.
The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Ulrike FrankePolicy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations
It is easy to take the outrageous statements on NATO that Trump has uttered over the last weeks and prove them wrong. Trump is wrong that European allies are “killing” the United States with NATO. He is also wrong that countries such as Germany owe money to the alliance. NATO isn’t a golf club, and the 2 percent of GDP defense spending goal is not only aspirational, it’s aspirational for 2024.
But his statement that NATO is more important to Europe than to the United States merits discussion. Certainly, the United States is better able to defend itself against military aggressions without NATO than Europe is (a consequence not only of insufficient European defense capabilities but geography). And yet, even for the United States, NATO’s security guarantee matters—the only time that NATO’s collective defense measure was invoked was for the United States, after 9/11.
But the deeper importance of NATO goes beyond security guarantees. NATO supports U.S. international security initiatives. It provides the United States with geopolitical power that goes beyond its national borders—particularly with regard to Russia. NATO is one part of the international system, which has benefitted the United States enormously and disproportionately. Trump is busy dismantling many of this system’s elements—a policy that is bad for Europe and bad for America.
François HeisbourgChair of the council of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and special advisor at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique
It wouldn’t be a problem if this were simply a case of a more-muscular-than-usual promotion of burden sharing. Trump goes much further. He discards the Atlantic alliance's “all for one, one for all” ethos; thus, Estonia only deserves to be defended if it has paid its dues. His vision of U.S. defense relations is the same as his views on foreign and trade relations generally: bilateral and transactional. He has repeated this weltanschauung over the decades.
In effect, POTUS appears to be turning the page on U.S. policy since 1941, when Congress enacted the Lend-Lease bill. China will be a natural beneficiary of this prospective dismantlement of the American-centric system of alliances.
The situation is made worse by Trump’s brand of dealmaking, with his unexpected decision to stop U.S. military exercises in South Korea, and by his tendency to exculpate Putin’s actions. Trump no longer appears to listen to Mattis or worry about Mueller. This is an existential crisis of the West, not simply a big disagreement like the Suez expedition, the Vietnam War, or the invasion of Iraq.
Markus KaimSenior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
In principle, the American president is right when he complains about the unequal burden sharing within the alliance. Many other American presidents have already done this before him, and the numbers as such are unlikely to be controversial, even in European capitals.
But he is wrong in his fundamental understanding of NATO. It is not an institution in which the United States invests and then achieves a material return. The alliance was and is above all an instrument of American policy in Europe— more precisely, directly for maintaining American leadership in Europe and indirectly for preserving American security and welfare. And just as every hegemon in world history had to take on greater burdens than those he led to maintain the structure of order, so the United States will have more to do as long as it holds fast to its claim to global leadership.
But many European allies are also wrong in their policy of delaying an increase in national defense spending. First, this is urgently needed even without Donald Trump’s demands; second, it is in the common European interest; and third, such an attitude ignores Europe’s fundamental security dependency on the United States.
Karl-Heinz KampPresident of the Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin
Only partly, unfortunately. Most NATO members—including Germany—don’t spend enough for their own security and defense and still bank on crucial military support from overseas. This is unfair vis-à-vis the United States and is irresponsible with respect to their own men- and women-at-arms, who risk their health and their lives for their countries. It does not take a Donald Trump to realize this, but his tweets remind the allies that daddy is not going to pick up the bills for the kids any more. One can bemoan the style; on substance, he has a point.
The trouble is that Donald Trump ignores the other half of a father’s role. Next to educating the children, he has to keep the family together—or, to put it in alliance terms: the benign hegemon has to lead the group and to evolve it to the benefit of all its members. This is what America did in the past, and this is why the European allies accepted Washington as the primus inter pares.
Trump does exactly the opposite. By offending friends and partners, he endangers NATO as a whole. And on top of this, he is too ignorant to realize that steps that might please his ego do not necessarily benefit his country. Fathers like this usually end up lonely in a retirement home.
Julian Lindley-FrenchSenior fellow at the Institute of Statecraft, Director of Europa Analytica, distinguished visiting research fellow at the National Defense University, and fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute
The Grim Tweeter cometh! President Trump must be listened to with respect if NATO is to endure. He is the president of the United States, and America is central to NATO. It is not Trump who is the greatest threat to NATO, it is the Europeans.
All enduring alliances are transactional and necessarily established on equity of effort, cost, and risk. Simple recalls to shared “values” will only work for so long if one side is bearing an unreasonable cost. Given growing pressures worldwide on U.S. forces, Washington has the right to expect that Europeans now forge an effective response force. Instead, Europeans talk and do next to nothing. Defense outcomes are the true test, not strictly limited defense inputs. Take Germany. Berlin aspires to run an Enabling Command and yet only four of its 129 Eurofighter Typhoons are combat ready. Such strategic pretense is apparent across Europe. Trump might be wrong about a lot of things but he is right about NATO.
The NATO summit in Brussels is not really about Trump at all. It is about Europeans who must finally make hard choices on defense. If not, the Grim Tweeter will cometh—and goeth.
Claudia MajorSenior associate for international security at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and a member of Women in International Security (WIIS) Berlin
President Trump is right in reminding Europeans that defense is not for free. And like in every big administration, there are things that could be done in a more efficient way in NATO.
But Trump is wrong in questioning the value of the alliance. In fact, the United States benefits from NATO in a variety of ways. It is the world’s largest multilateral military organization, boasting strong and flexible defense capabilities that can be adapted to a wide range of security threats—from fighting terrorism to deterring Russia. And there is greater legitimacy when acting through NATO than alone. The United States can also benefit from its existing routines, proved procedures, military interoperability, and functioning support structures. For example, although NATO didn’t take part in the war against Saddam Hussein in 1991, it did offer logistical support to the United States.
Europe also provides a secure hub for U.S. military, being conveniently located halfway between the United States and many crisis zones. There is a reason why one of the largest U.S. military hospitals is in Germany. And despite major gaps in their equipment, the Europeans have a number of things that the United States doesn’t but could well use, like minesweepers.
NATO is a slow dinosaur and far from perfect, but even the United States benefits from it.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
Maybe the only issue that Donald Trump is right about on NATO is the level of defense spending. His insistence on increasing defense budgets since last year’s summit in Brussels will probably result in boosted efforts by NATO’s European members.
But what Trump gets wrong about NATO is its political meaning. Perhaps the North Atlantic Treaty has not been explained to him. Or perhaps this is about not having heard of ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force deployed in Afghanistan from 2003 until 2014, when, for the first time in the treaty’s history, Article 5 was implemented in support of the United States after the 9/11 attacks.
Fast forward to the Trump presidency, and people of my generation—I am marginally younger than Trump—can only be mesmerized by his propensity to undermine the Western alliance; to attack the EU for the first time since European countries started economic and political cooperation nearly 70 years ago (including by launching a trade war against the EU); and, more generally, to adopt a stance against America’s allies that is closer to the Kremlin’s narrative than what U.S. presidents have consistently said since World War II.
Yes, Trump is wrong about NATO and Europe. And history will prove him wrong.
Daniela SchwarzerDirector of the German Council on Foreign Relations
Trump is right in that all NATO members should contribute their adequate share to enhancing the alliance’s strategic and military capacity. At the same time, he is committing strategic mistakes. The doubt he has deliberately spread about the United States’ commitment to the security guarantee weakens the credibility of the alliance, just like the strong polarization around the 2 percent goal does. His repeated negative comments about closer European defense cooperation are short-sighted as there is a strong potential for mutually beneficial EU and NATO cooperation.
The EU needs to step up its recent efforts to cooperate more closely on defense and armament. Cohesion, trust, and a forward-looking strategic debate within the alliance are prerequisites for the West to act in a rapidly changing security environment and to shape the changing world order. Trump will realize at some point that his zero-sum and big-power politics of the world will become costly—not only for long-term U.S. allies, but also for the United States.
Constanze StelzenmüllerRobert Bosch senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
Yes, Europeans (and Germans) need to bear a much greater share of their own defense—imperfect as the 2 percent benchmark is. Yes, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline undermines trust between Germany and its Eastern European neighbors. Yes, saving on defense budgets over decades has weakened European defense and enabled Europeans to shore up their welfare systems, investing in social and political support and legitimacy.
On all these things, Trump is right. As a German, I might add something that Trump has not said: that EU and NATO enlargement, that epochal gift of the 1990s and 2000s, allowed a former frontline state in the Cold War to relegate territorial security issues to its neighbors and their neighbors.
Trump is also right that the West, and Europe in particular, today faces real challengers, spoilers, and adversaries.
Yet where Trump is monumentally, tragically wrong—and where Europe cannot and must not follow him—is in his open contempt for representative democracy, republican constitutions, open societies, and a rules-based international order, and his admiration for autocrats and dictators. This, not defense spending or pipelines, is the new fault line in the alliance today, and the greatest in its history.
Paul TaylorSenior fellow at Friends of Europe
Donald Trump has a fair point when he says that too many allies—especially Germany, but also the wealthy Benelux countries—are free riding on U.S. protection in NATO and not pulling their weight on defense when they can afford to do so. But he’s going about pressuring them to increase military outlays in a counterproductive and potentially destructive way. Casting doubt on the U.S. commitment to NATO’s mutual defense guarantee, and hectoring and threatening allies rather than consulting and working with them, undermines America’s most important alliance.
Trump’s linkage of defense spending and trade flows is ill-informed and dangerous. He has disregarded European and Canadian interests with a series of unilateral actions—steel tariffs, reneging on the Iran nuclear deal, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and tearing up a G7 communiqué to which he had agreed. His obsession with German car imports is ridiculous and could trigger a global economic crisis.
NATO may be slow-moving and frustrating, but it is the backbone of Western political unity, strategic deterrence, and military interoperability. For an American president to break or undermine it would be an act of folly. The West’s adversaries would be emboldened. Russia, China, and ISIL would benefit, but certainly not the United States.
Jan TechauDirector of the European Program and senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Berlin
Of course he is, and here is why. There are two predominant patterns in Trump’s foreign policy thinking: first, that America’s strength is somehow God-given and limitless; second, that America’s authority is built exclusively on power and therefore does not require any other source of legitimacy. Both are fallacies. The former leads Trump to believe that the United States needs neither help nor allies. The latter makes him dismiss the magic ingredient that made Pax Americana so unique and successful: that binding the country into multilateral institutions creates legitimacy—i.e. acceptability—of American hegemonic dominance.
Add to this his greed and sense of entitlement: Trump wants America to be the strongest, greatest, and bigliest player without paying for it. That he who is the hegemon also has larger obligations than the rest is alien to him. He wants his Big Mac and to eat it. This leads the U.S. president to his biggest fallacy: that allies are only worth protecting when they pay for it. That a genuine security guarantee must be based on overwhelming strategic instead of monetary interest is just as incomprehensible to Trump as the fact that a security guarantee that is transactional in nature has no credibility.
Trump believes NATO costs America too much and that it is an organization that needs to be squeezed for money. Since the so-called peace movement in the 1970s and 1980s, nobody has been more mistaken about NATO than Donald Trump.
Sinan ÜlgenVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
Trump’s open criticism of NATO is weakening the alliance and leading to a potentially destructive erosion of trust. The issue of burden sharing has been a long-standing concern for many different U.S. administrations. Yet following the austerity measures that had to be implemented in many European countries in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, defense budgets are now on the rise. More allies are moving in the direction of the 2 percent target. But unlike past administrations’ rhetoric, Trump’s admonitions are read under a different light.
The U.S. president has demonstrated a vivid distaste of the multilateral system. He pulled the United States out of the Paris climate change agreement and the UN Commission on Human Rights. More recently, he attacked the multilateral trading system and cast doubts about the United States’ commitment to the World Trade Organization. His comments on NATO are therefore viewed against this backdrop of animosity to the multilateral order. As such, his statements about the alliance are read not so much as a benign and constructive criticism that aims to redress a long-standing shortcoming but more as a continuation of his inherent belligerence to a continuing U.S. commitment to a multilateral arrangement, this time in the area of security and defense.
Alexander VershbowDistinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council; former NATO deputy secretary general; and former U.S. ambassador to NATO, Russia, and South Korea
Trump is 98 percent wrong about NATO. He lacks any sense of history and fails to appreciate that NATO’s role in keeping the peace among its own members was as important as deterring Soviet aggression. By denationalizing defense through NATO and promoting European integration through the Marshall Plan, the United States created the conditions for the extraordinary prosperity enjoyed on both sides of the Atlantic. Trump falsely sees NATO as a one-way street, ignoring the sacrifices allies have made to defend U.S. interests—and the United States itself—in military operations before and after 9/11. He fails to understand that burden sharing is about more than defense spending, that European allies (plus Canada) are doing more than their fair share in providing the Enhanced Forward Presence battalions in the Baltic States, and they have stayed the course in Afghanistan—even as U.S. political will has flagged.
Yes, not all allies are on course to fulfill their pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024; but every ally has increased spending in real terms, and overall alliance spending has risen in each of the four years since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The question is whether Trump is deliberately ignoring the big picture in order to justify a retreat from America’s role as leader of NATO and leader of the free world. The answer may become clearer at this week’s summit.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
Trump has a point when he complains about European nations’ limited efforts to take on their share of the financial burden for European defense. True, progress is in the making; but this upstream trend has been slow and remains somewhat uncertain.
Yet what is fundamentally wrong about Trump’s narrative on NATO boils down to his inability to distinguish between friends and foes. For the U.S. president, all nations are alike—with no consideration of common values, alliances, or interests. Rejecting all forms of multilateralism is the name of the game and must be brought to its natural conclusion. NATO is not really a partner when facing Russia’s or China’s military challenges, nor is the EU considered a possible ally to confront Beijing’s growing trade dominance. America is great again because it acts on its own with no concern for its so-called allies.
To be fair to President Trump, this is not entirely new in the long saga of the bilateral relationship between Europe and the United States. But precisely because isolationism has in the past shown how it can lead to bilateral confrontations and world conflagrations, governments should refrain from going down that path again. Ignoring the lessons of history is never the best way to build an efficient and responsible world order.