Report

Trump Fumed, but NATO Members Got What They Wanted

Think the NATO summit was a complete dumpster fire? Think again.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, U.S. President Donald Trump, and British Prime Minister Theresa May at a NATO summit in Brussels on July 11. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, U.S. President Donald Trump, and British Prime Minister Theresa May at a NATO summit in Brussels on July 11. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

He ranted, he threatened, he rebuked.

U.S. President Donald Trump did just about everything he could to spoil the NATO summit in Brussels this week. But when it ended Thursday, member states could point to a series of policy decisions that strengthened the alliance and undercut its main adversary, Russia.

They even heard some nice words from Trump.

“I believe in NATO,” he said at a closing news conference.

Behind closed doors, NATO leaders — Trump included — agreed to big strides on counterterrorism, new troop commitments, reforming its command structures, and boosting defense spending. Experts described the decisions as impressive for a sprawling bureaucracy that requires painstaking consensus among all 29 members.

“The alliance really had some important wins that were overshadowed by the noise,” said Ben Hodges, who commanded the U.S. Army in Europe until his retirement in 2017. “Even though it was almost cartoonish at times … it ended on a positive note,” Hodges added, though he didn’t discount how Trump’s abrasive rhetoric rankled allies.

“People are going to remember from this summit … the fact that Trump blew it up,” said Jim Townsend, a former senior U.S. Defense Department official who managed relations with NATO. “That’s so sad, because there were so many other things that NATO did here.”

Trump made defense spending the centerpiece of his performance, criticizing allies that don’t meet the NATO threshold of allotting 2 percent of GDP to defense. The issue came to a full boil on Thursday morning, the second day of the summit, when Trump forced member states to hold an emergency session on defense spending, cutting short a meeting on Ukraine and Georgia and scrapping entirely a session on Afghanistan.

NATO officials pushed back, saying member states had made significant strides. In 2014, only three nations hit the 2 percent target. Now, eight members are meeting the benchmark, and a majority are on track to reach that goal by 2024. Between now and then, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expects that European allies and Canada will spend an additional $266 billion on defense.

Experts say this increase is in large part due to Russia and its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, which caught the alliance flat-footed. But they also say Trump’s harsh rhetoric on defense spending has had an effect, particularly after a closed-door meeting described to Foreign Policy by current and former European officials in which Trump vaguely threatened the United States would “go it alone” if allies didn’t immediately boost their spending.

“That discussion has made NATO stronger. It has created a new sense of urgency,” Stoltenberg said in a press conference following the summit.

But the dispute over money did not prevent the alliance from making progress on other fronts.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May announced that Britain will be deploying an additional 440 troops to Afghanistan to help the country fight the Islamic State and the Taliban, almost doubling its commitment to the NATO-led mission, called Resolute Support.

Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Canada will lead a new NATO training mission in Iraq. He said up to 250 Canadian troops will deploy to Baghdad to help train and professionalize the ranks of Iraqi armed forces as they continue to battle Islamic State militants.

Canada’s new defense policy includes an increase of over 70 percent of the nation’s defense budget between 2016 and 2026, according to a press release from the Canadian government.

“We are proud to take a leadership role in Iraq, and work with our Allies and the Government of Iraq, to help this region of the Middle East transition to long-lasting peace and stability,” Trudeau said.

NATO also announced it would open two new command structures that will involve 1,200 new personnel. One is expected to be based in Norfolk, Virginia, to address maritime threats with an eye toward Russia. The other will be centered in Germany to focus on the vast logistical undertaking of moving troops and equipment around Europe to support military exercises aimed at deterring Russia.

The alliance also agreed to a new goal, dubbed in NATO jargon as the “four 30s”: to deploy 30 battalions, 30 aircraft squadrons, and 30 warships within 30 days of any crisis.

“This is a really key fix,” said Townsend, the former senior Pentagon official. He said currently, many European militaries wouldn’t be ready to respond to a fast-moving crisis without a 90-day notice. “It’s like a fire department. If your house is on fire and you call 911 and they say, ok, we’ll be there in 90 days, what good is that?”

Finally, NATO formally invited Macedonia, the small Balkan country that recently resolved a bitter name dispute with neighboring Greece, to begin talks to join the alliance.

“The reality is that NATO has accomplished a lot in recent years and always had a good story to tell at this summit,” said Amanda Sloat, a former senior State Department official under the Obama administration.

She said member states would now turn their attention to Helsinki, where Trump is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for a first formal summit on July 16.

“Allies now hold their breath for Trump’s meeting with Putin, hoping his statements there don’t undermine strenuous efforts to project NATO solidarity,” Sloat said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent.

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