NATO’s top mission: Preparing for Trump
When NATO’s chief meets Donald Trump at the White House this week, it will be a high-stakes dress rehearsal for the American president’s visit to alliance headquarters in Brussels next month.
Wednesday’s meeting between NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister known for his reserved calm, and the volatile, bombastic real estate tycoon-turned-president will also be a chance to reboot relations with Washington.
In recent weeks, however, his senior aides have made strong statements in support of NATO and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was applauded by the initially skeptical Europeans when he visited Brussels recently.
“My impression is that in Brussels everybody is hypersensitive because of this one word ‘obsolete,'” said Christian Mölling, deputy director of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “Everybody is still nervous.”
Mölling acknowledged that senior Trump aides had visited Brussels with a positive message, but noted that Tillerson initially planned to skip the NATO ministerial meeting late last month.
“Maybe they are all playing a big game to make NATO pay, that may be the point behind it,” Mölling said. “But people are still suffering from the rather erratic policy style that we see.”
Taking no chancesTo assuage nervous European leaders and charm the American president, NATO officials are not taking any chances and have lined up a highly-choreographed Brussels meeting. For one thing, to minimize the risk of testing Trump’s patience, officials are planning to confine the discussion among NATO leaders to a single dinner meeting. And while details of the leaders’ meeting on May 25 are being closely held, it is clear that the program will cater to two Trump interests: money and buildings.
Officials involved in the planning said the day will include a formal dedication ceremony for NATO’s long-awaited €1.1 billion headquarters, a sprawling steel- and-glass complex.
In addition to playing to the American president’s interest in construction, officials are hoping to create an emotional bond tied to Trump’s hometown of New York by having him unveil a memorial to the 9/11 attacks which will be permanently installed at the new headquarters.
The display will include a steel beam from the destroyed World Trade Center provided to NATO by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum on a 99-year loan. It is intended to serve as a reminder that the only time NATO has invoked Article 5, the collective defense clause declaring an attack on one ally would be regarded as an attack on all, came in response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
On the not-so-symbolic money front, officials are hoping that NATO countries still not meeting the 2 percent of GDP defense spending goal will be ready with individual plans showing how they will reach that target.
Germany, Europe’s largest economy and a country which would have to nearly double its military spending to meet the goal, has been resistant. On a visit to NATO last week, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel pushed back on Trump’s demands, noting that money is just one measure of a nation’s contribution to the alliance and that such a huge increase in spending by Germany would be impractical.
On Monday, Martin Schulz, the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor in the upcoming German elections, bluntly said he would push back against any such spending demands.
Stoltenberg, however, has tried to mend fences, noting that Germany has sharply ramped up its defense spending and that all NATO allies are in agreement on the need to spend more.
“All allies understand and accept the need for fair burden-sharing and respect the decision we made in 2014,” he said at a recent news conference. “And Germany has started to increase after years of decline in German defense spending.”
When it comes to the benefits of the alliance, a NATO official speaking on condition of anonymity noted that NATO already does a lot to combat terrorism and has long had a role in Afghanistan through its Resolute Support Mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces and institutions “so that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for international terrorists.” The official noted that NATO allies were all part of the fight against Islamic State and that NATO was training local forces in Iraq.
“NATO has untapped potential,” the official said. “Training local forces remains one of the best tools we have in the fight against terrorism and it is ultimately within this framework that we can and should do more. This will, therefore, be a key topic at our May 25 meeting.”
If Trump remains unconvinced by Stoltenberg, Mölling offered another argument — one tailor-made to persuade a businessman: self-interest.
“NATO has done a great deal in bringing security and stability to Europe and to other parts of the world, and also the U.S. has profited from the stability,” Mölling said. “And that’s something that people who come from the economic world tend to forget,” he added, “that they can only make their business if there is a safe and secure environment, and NATO is part of that security.”