BRUSSELS — Donald Trump didn’t kill NATO.
He tweeted angrily at it before he arrived. He inelegantly spitballed Germany at the opening breakfast. He mildly barked during the day about the 2 percent-of-GDP defense spending goal and — surprise! — demanded everyone double it.
But by the end of day one, NATO supporters got what they wanted.
Publicly, Trump kept the rhetorical damage to a minimum. No, really…is that it? The guy who packs arenas with rabid fans and rips into anyone and everyone sacred, the master disrupter of modern politics, the man who can send Washington into a tizzy with a phrase came to Brussels and — gasp! — joined a joint declaration with all of the standard promises and support for NATO.
In fact, Trump and the other heads-of-state- and -government issued a 23-page joint declaration containing a full-throated show of unity and frank assessment of the threats to Europe and North America — particularly Russia. To punch it home, NATO issued a separate three-page declaration on “solidarity.” In both documents, NATO leaders explicitly call out Russia in the second paragraph, one of which accuses Moscow of “violating international law,” and “conducting provocative military activities,” and in the third they address defense spending commitments, a perennial concern that Trump has turned into a cudgel. They blast Russia for its “illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea,” its military buildup in Kaliningrad, and the chemical weapons attacks in the UK. From cyber threats to Baltic exercises, they say it all.
So far, so good. There’s more to come on Thursday, but for now it seems everyone got through the day with what they wanted: minimal Trump damage.
And that’s the bad news. That’s all they wanted.
This is a NATO Summit like none other, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday. After nearly 70 years of protecting Western civilization from a third world war, Russian invasion, and the spread of 20th-century totalitarianism, NATO leaders here aren’t talking about the usual nitpick topics — how to share cargo planes, for example, or whether to deploy more troops to Afghanistan.
Instead, NATO leaders brought a coordinated public campaign to sell the most basic of concepts: the very existence of the alliance. They don’t have to sell it to the military officers, diplomats, media, and true-believing foreign policy wonks gathered here for the event. They’re selling it to Trump. They’re selling it to their own publics. And they’re using the most basic of language.
When Trump was getting started in Brussels, leaders on the other side of NATO headquarters were launching an effort to push back. Each nation, they said, should measure its share of the burden of collective defense not by money expended but by capability contributed. But more than that, they argued for collective security itself.
“Look, we have faced down massive challenges as a the world in the past, and we did it by coming together and standing side-by-side for what we knew was right,” said Canadian Prime MInister Justin Trudeau, in a passionate and unscripted closing monologue to a NATO-organized conference of experts and officials.
“We can again, and we need to again, do that — recognize the rise of populism, of aggressive nationalism, of polarization in our public discourse in Canada and elsewhere around the world needs to be responded to with strong, confident, positive, rational messages about how we can solve these challenges together,” Trudeau said. “And there is no better example of that than the extraordinary success that NATO has had over the past almost 70 years and indeed will continue to have in a way that is more relevant today than it ever has been before.”
Trudeau received thunderous applause from this choir, but he was hardly the only leader who brought the same basic message. Germany’s Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said her father was 15 years old at the end of World War II and fought all his life to build up the European Union and to strengthen partnerships, like NATO.
“I’m almost 60 years old. I realize I always took that for granted as a given,” von der Leyen said. “I realize it’s up to our generation now to renew that because I want my children in 50 years to live under the security umbrella of NATO, in a democracy, and that’s worth fighting for.” More applause.
As the day wore on, some fears and actual reports of Trump “blowing up” the summit seemed overblown. Trump’s desire for NATO members to spend their pledged amounts on defense is not new. Trump pressing NATO members — though harder and more un-diplomatically than ever seen — is not the same as destroying the alliance. Trump’s entire team has said nothing but the right things, supporting a strong NATO to counter Russia, preaching the very concept of collective defense, and pushing back on concerns Trump may seek to withdraw.
Stoltenberg, who said his job is “to keep the family together,” worked hardest to paper over the differences. In his morning appearance before the sideline conference, Reuters’ Pentagon reporter Phil Stewart asked him directly if Trump’s rhetoric was making it harder to hold the alliance together. When Stoltenberg demurred, the moderator, CNN’s Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, pressed him on Trump’s negative rhetoric about NATO versus the more positive messaging coming from his administration. Eventually Stoltenberg relented, saying, “”There are big differences.” Later, he spoke to the larger forum of attending media.
“In the history of NATO, we have had many disagreements. And we have been able to overcome them, again and again,” Stoltenberg said at a press conference. ”Because at the end of the day, we all agree that North America and Europe are safer together. NATO is good for Europe. And NATO is good for North America. So today, we agreed to strengthen NATO’s deterrence and defence. Step up our role in the fight against terrorism. And share the burden of our security more fairly.”
Even Turkey — perhaps the most uncertain NATO ally just now — came with a ironclad message. “We need solidarity and unity now more than ever,” said Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, at the sideline event.
Trump’s tweets and Turkey’s arms deals with Russia notwithstanding, the common theme was clear: “cohesion.” Several NATO leaders used that word to say what they wanted from the alliance and wanted to convey to their publics. Like much of the international order, they said, NATO is being challenged and questioned like never before, and perhaps healthily. If the next generation wants to preserve the alliance and the international order it supports, then the think-tank academics and bureaucrats and officers in attendance will have to do something they never thought they’d have to. They’re going to have to sell it.
As von der Leyen said, “This is not a given. If we don’t stand up for it, nobody else will.”