NATO Prepares to Be Disappointed by the Cheshire Cat President
U.S. allies will not leave Thursday's summit feeling any more reassured than when they arrived.
The hysteria that now surrounds the Donald Trump presidency has blown the NATO mini-summit out of the water. Allies who once were looking forward to Thursday’s summit for reassurance that the U.S. president supported a U.S. role in Europe will instead come just to see firsthand the spectacle that Trump has become. Whispers of obstruction of justice and impeachment have badly battered the credibility of the president and weakened him. Allies look to the United States for strong leadership. The summit will showcase instead a U.S. leadership in doubt.
At one time, the main outcome of the summit was set to be a family photo of 29 heads of state or government, including Trump, standing together with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. This photo would signify unity, strength, and the end of Trump’s doubts about NATO. Instead, the photo will become a curiosity, and all who view it will wonder if Trump will show up in the next family photo.
Allies want to hear about Russia as well: Just where does the president stand on provocative Russian behavior in Europe, such as bullying allies and occupying parts of Georgia and Ukraine? Does the president support continuing sanctions as well as the newly enhanced U.S. troop presence in Central and Eastern Europe? Given his curious meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a day before the James Comey memo revelations, whatever Trump may say about Russia will be unconvincing. As soon as allies think they know where the administration stands on Russia or on anything for that matter, Trump’s actions and tweets often say something else. Allies are afraid of assuming one thing and then embarrassing themselves when they find out via a tweet or an oval office photo op that Trump’s views are indeed somewhere else.
And how enthusiastic will allies be now about grabbing the thorny nettle of increased defense spending, if it is to please someone for whom they have lost respect? Making progress on the pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense is the right thing to do, regardless of who is pressing allies to do so. Allies should be doing this not to make Trump happy but to improve NATO defense capabilities. But Trump’s blandishments no longer help motivate nations to increase spending — the leadership that Trump was beginning to show on this issue has been undercut by his actions at home. It’s understandable if some Allies resent being preached to about virtuosity by an American president who has tarnished his own virtue at home.
Counterterrorism cooperation is also on the agenda, but the deliverables, as policymakers like to call them, will be thin. Europeans are open to new ideas, but the president’s failure to staff the Departments of State and Defense have prevented the administration from floating any. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in the eyes of his European audience, since many in Europe don’t view NATO as the right fit. Europeans tend to look at counterterrorism through law enforcement and intelligence sharing lenses, leading them to the European Union instead. In light of recent revelations about the president’s handling of classified material, it isn’t clear allies are looking to enhance intelligence sharing with the United States right now.
Finally, Trump will have to address the issue of Afghanistan, home to NATO’s longest combat mission. Europeans have heard that Trump is considering sending more troops there and could very well ask for Europe’s help. Sending troops into harms way is the toughest decision any leader must make. Such a decision must come after a thorough analysis of the options and assurances that sacrifices made will be worthy of the objective. U.S. military leadership believes we need more forces, U.S. and European, in Afghanistan. That is a tall order even on a good day, given how long this conflict has lasted with no end in sight. But will allies double down in Afghanistan under these conditions, especially given that the ask is coming from a U.S. president mired in crises? If asked to contribute more, the allies will rightly want to see a strategy first — something this administration still lacks.
At the end of the day, the allies will come to the summit for the spectacle but stay for the discussions. They have to stay because the populism heating up the political atmosphere combined with threats to Europe from all points of the compass give them no choice but to cling together. The U.S. president used to be the pillar around which the allies would rally when times were bad. Times are bad now, but the president is weak, and like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, not always present, invisible except for his toothy grin. The NATO summit will take place and the Cheshire Cat will be there, but allies will not leave the summit feeling any more reassured than when they arrived. But they will be entertained. Tea, anyone?
Photo credit: Getty Images/Disney/Foreign Policy illustration
Julianne ("Julie") Smith is director of the strategy and statecraft program at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to joining CNAS, she served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2012 to 2013. Before going to the White House, she served as the principal director for European/NATO policy at the Pentagon. Smith lives in Washington with her husband and two children. Smith is a co-editor of Shadow Government.