Allies are right to be worried.
Donald Trump’s first full NATO summit is expected to be contentious, if not downright hostile. The U.S. president’s sole goal for Brussels appears to be hammering allies on their defense spending, and it’s even less clear what he wants to do with the remainder of his Europe trip, which includes meetings with a severely weakened Theresa May and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. What should Europe watchers expect?
Trump’s animosity toward some of the United States’ closest allies and partners in Europe is straining the multinational institutions upon which the U.S.-European relationship is built. He has had borderline obsessive focus on NATO allies’ defense budgets since the beginning of his presidency, and has no problem railing on allies to spend more. Recently, Trump sent a harsh letter to some of the allies excoriating them for not spending enough, saying it is “increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries do not share NATO’s collective security.” When allies meet in Brussels, more harsh words are to be expected.
By all means, Europe must be able to provide for its own defense, and U.S. calls to spend more are neither new nor unwarranted. But Trump is unpopular in Europe, and his constant bullying of NATO allies may actually make it harder for European leaders to gain public support to increase defense spending lest they be seen as kowtowing to the U.S. president. The good news is that Europe recognizes its need to spend more—NATO has seen four consecutive years of allied real increases in defense spending, with each ally not only spending more, but contributing more to NATO missions and operations. Because of this, it is time for the U.S. president to declare victory on the defense spending front and move on to more important issues. Much could be accomplished at this summit, but if Trump only focuses on money, it will be a missed opportunity for the U.S. to reaffirm its commitment to European allies. Unfortunately, expectations are not high.
After the Summit concludes, the U.S. President will head to the United Kingdom to meet with Prime Minister May on July 13. It has been a disastrous week for her: Brexit Secretary David Davis resigned suddenly on Sunday evening, followed by a similarly shocking resignation by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. It is no secret that President Trump has an affinity for strongmen, and at the moment, May is seen as hanging on by a thread. This, along with the protests expected during his visit, will make for an all-around awkward visit for the two leaders. After a welcome dinner and a jaunt to see a joint UK-U.S. military-mobility demonstration, the two will travel to May’s country residence to discuss a range of foreign policy issues. Trump will enter this visit knowing that the prime minister is in a fragile position. Because of this, he’ll likely show a lack of interest, or even worse, bully her. At the same time, she will do everything in her power to reaffirm the U.S.-UK special relationship and try to elicit a positive response from Trump. But his likely indifference combined with her weakened position may leave her in an even more delicate spot after he departs. Who knows how much longer she’ll even be in office?
The final issue likely to overshadow both the Summit and the UK visit is the meeting between Trump and Putin slated to occur in Helsinki on July 16. The two are likely to discuss arms races, sanctions relief, Iran’s presence in Syria, diplomatic staff in each country, Ukraine, and NATO. There is some good news. First, it’s good that the meeting occurs after, rather than before, the Summit. This way, allies won’t have to scramble to respond to whatever surprises emerge from Helsinki. Second, Trump’s views about Europe are no secret—he’s been openly antagonistic toward European allies since the beginning of his presidency. The meeting with Putin is unlikely to swing his views much.
The big problem is that the good news is also the bad news. Because the meeting occurs after the NATO summit, any achievements in Brussels could be easily wiped out by whatever promises Trump makes to Putin on a whim. The major concern has to do with U.S. troop presence in eastern Europe as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, as well as U.S. participation in NATO’s military exercises. Putin sees these exercises as needlessly antagonistic, and likens NATO troop presence along the alliance’s eastern periphery to the Kremlin placing missiles in Mexico. Given Trump’s negotiating style, allies are rightly concerned that he may tell Putin that he will remove some U.S. troops from Eastern Europe, or halt U.S. participation in NATO exercises as a sign of good will. This would send European allies into a frenzy. Finally, given Trump’s apparent disdain for Europe and his admiration for Putin, he’ll likely show the Russian leader much more respect than he will show NATO allies during the summit. At best, Trump will only feign interest during his meetings at NATO. The juxtaposition of these optics will only further undermine U.S.-European relations.
One week from now, this marathon week of diplomacy will come to an end. NATO staff will get to work implementing decisions made in Brussels, Theresa May could be out as Prime Minister, and Vladimir Putin might be celebrating some diplomatic wins. What victories or crises will the U.S. president leave in his wake only time will tell.