Ahead of NATO Summit, U.S. President Exhorts Allies to Pay Up

European officials worry that Trump could roil yet another international summit.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and other leaders gather during a NATO summit on May 25, 2017 in Brussels, Belgium. (Stefan Rousseau - Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and other leaders gather during a NATO summit on May 25, 2017 in Brussels, Belgium. (Stefan Rousseau - Pool/Getty Images)

Organizers of this year’s NATO summit in Brussels are worried that U.S. President Donald Trump might spoil the event with a single boorish tweet — much as his internet missives marred the summit meeting of G-7 nations earlier this month in Canada.

But while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s pivotal meeting is still two weeks off, Trump has already surprised the participants: Instead of tweets, he is sending out letters.

In a sharply worded message to at least some countries in the 29-member alliance that didn’t meet defense spending thresholds — one that followed a general template but included additional language tailored to specific countries — Trump wrote that Americans were tired of funding Europe’s defense and wanted to see other NATO members carrying more of the load.

“[It is] increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries do not share NATO’s collective security,” said the letter, which was described to Foreign Policy by U.S. officials and foreign diplomats.

“I, therefore, expect to see a strong recommitment by [country] to meet the goals to which we all agreed,” it said.

The version being sent to Germany contained some of the harshest language, according to the officials.

Though it’s not uncommon for U.S. administrations to push allies on burden-sharing, the letter — its tone and its timing — underscored the precariousness of international parleys in the Trump era. NATO summits are usually choreographed affairs, with shoulder-to-shoulder photo-ops and boilerplate communiques.

The coming meeting, starting July 11 and featuring the leaders of all NATO countries, could be a fiasco thanks to Trump’s unpredictable and brash behavior.

“A no-news summit would be a good summit,” said one European diplomat who preferred not to be named discussing the upcoming event. “But at this point, we’re all scared shitless.”

The meeting will feature announcements on some policy breakthroughs: a new NATO program in Iraq to train Iraqi security forces, a joint initiative with the European Union to increase “military mobility” for allied forces moving around within Europe, the opening of two new command structures — one focused on maritime issues in Norfolk, Virginia, and one on logistics in Germany, and the possible launching of talks with Macedonia to join the alliance.

It will likely be followed by a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But the optics of a warm interaction between the two men would be especially jarring if it came on the heels of a troubled NATO summit.

“Allies are concerned that praise will be heaped on Putin … while simultaneously Trump is sharply criticizing allies for not doing enough on defense spending,” said Julie Smith, an expert on trans-Atlantic security at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide, speaking at an event at the think tank on Tuesday, said maintaining alliance cohesion is critical in the run-up to a Trump-Putin meeting. She said it was important for Putin to “understand that the president of the United States also speaks on behalf of an alliance.”

When asked for comment, the State Department referred all questions to the White House, but a spokesman there did not immediately respond to queries.

Relations between the United States and its European allies and Canada are already tense over a spiraling trade war, Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, his administration’s continued singling out of Germany, and the U.S. exit from the Paris climate agreement.

At the G-7 meeting in Canada, Trump made the attacks personal, chiding Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Twitter as “weak and dishonest” and refusing to sign the meeting’s joint communique with the other six top global economic powers.

“What I think most troubles the alliance is that some of these angry words might get translated into angry action,” said Adam Thomson, a former British ambassador to NATO who now heads the London-based European Leadership Network. “That could be quite a bit more serious.”

Trump roiled the NATO summit last year with his refusal to endorse the alliance’s collective defense clause and the shove he gave Montenegro’s leader at a photo-op. The issue of defense spending could be this year’s main source of contention.

In 2014, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and spiraling crises in the Middle East, NATO members set a goal for each country to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense by 2024 — a long-standing NATO benchmark that few members honored.

At the beginning of this year, eight of the 29 members either met or were nearing the 2 percent target: the United States, United Kingdom, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, and Greece.

Six others — Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Montenegro, Slovakia, and Turkey — have unveiled plans to reach the target by 2024. Two, Norway and Denmark, may not meet the 2 percent threshold by 2024 but have plans to significantly boost defense spending. Norway, for example, plans to purchase 52 new F-35 fighter jets.

That leaves the majority of NATO allies without plans to meet the spending target, including Germany, Europe’s strongest economy.

“There’s a lot of good news about the alliance, but there’s dangers that will all get eclipsed by Trump’s recriminations on 2 percent,” Alexander Vershbow, a scholar at the Atlantic Council and former deputy secretary-general of NATO, said.

Officials said the State Department had been quietly trying to press Trump to avoid negative messaging at the summit and focus on the overall increase in defense spending, even if countries aren’t meeting the benchmark. That’s something NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has touted in recent interviews, including with Foreign Policy.

One more concern for the Europeans is the possibility that U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis’s influence in the administration is declining. Mattis has overseen a significant buildup of U.S. military presence and funding in Europe despite Trump’s sharp dismissal of NATO allies. He “looms as the most important safeguard for allies to cling to,” Vershbow said.

“I think quite a few people here view Mattis as the last voice of reason,” said one European defense official.

For European leaders, it’s one more reason to brace for trouble at the summit.

“I don’t think anybody would be dumb enough to predict what would happen,” said one NATO official based in Brussels. “I’m hopeful [the summit] will go smoothly in that he’ll only make a few obnoxious remarks.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer