NATO Frantically Tries to Trump-Proof President’s First Visit

A ‘freaked-out’ NATO braces for Donald Trump’s first meeting of the transatlantic alliance.

NATO is scrambling to tailor its upcoming meeting to avoid taxing President Donald Trump’s notoriously short attention span. The alliance is telling heads of state to limit talks to two to four minutes at a time during the discussion, several sources inside NATO and former senior U.S. officials tell Foreign Policy. And the alliance scrapped plans to publish the traditional full post-meeting statement meant to crystallize NATO’s latest strategic stance.

On May 25, NATO will host the heads of state of all 28 member countries in what will be Trump’s first face-to-face summit with an alliance he bashed repeatedly while running for president. NATO traditionally organizes a meeting within the first few months of a new U.S. president’s term, but Trump has the alliance more on edge than any previous newcomer, forcing organizers to look for ways to make the staid affair more engaging.

“It’s kind of ridiculous how they are preparing to deal with Trump,” said one source briefed extensively on the meeting’s preparations. “It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child — someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re freaking out.”

Still, despite these changes, experts are wary of how Trump will react to NATO meetings and their long-winded, diplomatic back-and-forth among dozens of heads of state, which can quickly balloon into hours of meandering discussions. One former senior NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described these meetings as “important but painfully dull.”

Rank-and-file diplomats always try to push for shorter, more efficient meetings at NATO. “It’s not so unusual that they strain to try to keep it interesting and short and not dragged down into details,” said Jim Townsend, who served as the Pentagon’s top NATO envoy until January. But what is unusual is the president.

“Even a brief NATO summit is way too stiff, too formal, and too policy heavy for Trump. Trump is not going to like that,” said Jorge Benitez, a NATO expert with the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

Another change: NATO traditionally publishes a formal readout, known as a declaration, after each major meeting or summit. While they’re often lathered in diplomatic drivel, declarations signal new strategies and key policy shifts that come out of closed-door meetings, giving direction to allies and the NATO bureaucracy — and showcasing alliance unity toward rivals like Russia, a former senior NATO official told FP.

This year, NATO has scrapped plans to publish a full formal meeting declaration. One NATO official said that’s because it’s not a full summit, like past major NATO gatherings in Warsaw in 2016 or Wales in 2014. “It’s not necessary to have another full declaration, as it’s not a full summit,” the official said. “This meeting is just much more focused.”

But behind closed doors, other officials are giving a different reason. NATO isn’t publishing a full declaration “because they’re worried Trump won’t like it,” another source said.

Experts say a declaration could be invaluable to European allies still struggling to get a read on Trump’s stance on Europe. Four months into office, Trump hasn’t clarified U.S. policy toward Europe — he cheered Brexit and appeared to endorse anti-Europe candidate Marine Le Pen in the recent French elections — let alone toward NATO.

Trump rattled NATO allies during the campaign by slamming the alliance as “obsolete” and openly praising Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since he became president, top administration officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence, traveled to Brussels to soothe Europeans’ nerves and reiterate customary U.S. commitments to the 68-year-old alliance. Meanwhile, Trump declared in April during a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that the alliance is “no longer obsolete.”

But the president’s erratic policy shifts and surprise Twitter storms on other international issues have NATO jittery, a former senior NATO official told FP. (Trump offered a taste of this during his awkward meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in March, where he refused to shake her hand; German officials also said he handed her a fake “bill” for overdue NATO payments, though the White House swiftly denied those claims.)

“People are scared of his unpredictability, intimidated by how he might react knowing the president might speak his mind — or tweet his mind,” the former official said.

Or, as another current senior NATO official put it before the meeting: “We’re bracing for impact.”

Beyond nerves over Trump, the May 25 meeting is important in another way. It will be the first visit for newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron. And NATO leaders will use the meeting to unveil their new headquarters — a sleek, modern edifice meant to symbolize a new and modern alliance. But it also embodies the alliance’s shortfalls. The building is way behind schedule and over budget.

The senior NATO official who spoke to FP on condition of anonymity expressed concern that this could be a sore spot with Trump as he pushes European countries to spend more on defense. Although Trump may know little about the military alliance, he does profess to know something about getting buildings done on time and on budget.

If they can keep Trump’s attention, NATO heads of state are expected to discuss two main issues at the meeting, both catering to the president’s priorities: counterterrorism and burden-sharing.

On the counterterrorism front, the United States is pushing NATO to formally join the counter-Islamic State coalition at the meeting, but Germany is pushing back against the idea, multiple sources tell FP. All NATO members are involved at a national level, and while the alliance supports the mission, it’s not yet a formal member of the coalition.  

“Some members say it’s not necessarily the right format,” a NATO official told FP. “Since all NATO allies are already members … the question is what could we do as an alliance we are not already doing.”

But beyond that, and potentially sending more troops to Afghanistan, where it has been fighting the Taliban and other terrorists for about 15 years, officials concede that NATO hasn’t thought up much more to do.

Part of the issue is staffing. After months of Trump’s threatening a radically new approach to global alliances the United States helped create, there’s nobody even charting a new course. Trump hasn’t appointed any high-level posts for Europe, including key Pentagon postings, undersecretaries of state, an assistant secretary of state for Europe, or a new ambassador to NATO. With no middle management to give direction on a day-to-day basis, Europeans are struggling to decipher what the new administration wants from them.

“That’s where there’s a ton of panic in NATO,” a source told FP. “The United States put that issue forward, but it has nobody on tap who’s doing any sort of fresh thinking on that front.”

Trump is also expected to push his Canadian and European allies to pony up more for defense. Burden-sharing has always been a sore spot in U.S.-NATO relations. The United States is by far the largest defense spender in the alliance — its share of NATO spending has skyrocketed in recent decades — and it has long warned other allies to bulk up their military budgets, to little avail.

“His views of burden-sharing seem to be more ambitious than past presidents,” and that could become a source of tension at the big NATO confab, said Alexander Vershbow, former deputy secretary-general of NATO. “The burden-sharing conversation may not go entirely smoothly,” he told FP.

Only five of the 28 members — the United States, United Kingdom, Poland, Estonia, and Greece — met the NATO guidelines of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, despite a more aggressive Russia and an unraveling security situation in the Middle East.

Ultimately, to keep Trump on board, NATO will probably set out to sell those recent changes as a concession to Washington, even though “98 percent of the changes NATO undertook are because of Russia, not because of Trump,” Benitez said.

That might secure Trump a happy ending to this first meeting, but could spell more trouble down the road.

“They may give Trump credit, but privately many allies feel they’re being bullied into it,” Benitez said. “Trump’s approach to NATO is poisoning the relationship.” 

One former NATO official said the agenda meant to mollify Trump appeared to amount to repackaging what NATO was already doing — increasing its defense spending and continuing to support U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and the counter-Islamic State campaign — in a new wrapper for the president.

“They think they’re fine because they’re going to put old wine in new bottles,” one former senior U.S. official told FP. Whether Trump buys it remains to be seen.

Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA /Getty Images

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