Wed. Jul 17th, 2024

NATO leaders take action to ‘safeguard’ alliance against Trump in Washington

By meerna Jul11,2024
NATO leaders take action to ‘safeguard’ alliance against Trump in Washington

Former President Donald Trump won’t be at the negotiating table when NATO leaders meet in Washington this week, but he should be as officials strategize on how to adjust the alliance to the possibility that its most senior leader will soon turn skeptical again.

NATO policymakers have shifted control of key elements of military aid to Ukraine from U.S. command to the NATO umbrella. They have appointed a new NATO secretary general who has a reputation for being particularly agile in the face of Trump’s unpredictable impulses toward the alliance. They are signing a decade-long defense agreement with Ukraine to try to buffer military aid to Kiev from the ups and downs of politics. And they are increasing defense spending, Trump’s biggest ire when it comes to NATO.

At the Washington Convention Center, where the summit is taking place, Trump is rarely addressed directly, but he casts a dark shadow. European leaders are quietly wondering whether this will be their last meeting with a U.S. leader who sticks to the transatlantic agenda, a bipartisan fixture of American foreign policy from World War II to Trump’s first arrival in the White House.

“If we elect him again, I think from a European perspective it will be incredibly telling of the direction we’re taking in the United States,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the transatlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank, and a former senior intelligence officer who focuses on Russia. “And so it’s a hedge against Trump for the next four years, but there’s a growing concern that the United States will be less engaged with Europe in the long term.”

Few European policymakers say they believe Trump would formally withdraw the United States from NATO. Congress itself recently “backed up” U.S. membership against Trump by passing legislation that would bind the country to the alliance and require a two-thirds vote in the Senate to withdraw.

But many fear Trump will bring a much more transactional approach to the alliance, and some take seriously his promise to check whether they meet their defense spending commitments before deciding whether to come to their aid if they are attacked. How to deal with Trump dominates small talk among NATO decision-makers in Washington, along with a related obsession with whether President Biden will abandon his reelection bid.

Asked whether European leaders discuss Trump behind closed doors, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre told The Washington Post that “you won’t believe me if I say no. But that doesn’t mean I’ll tell you what we talk about.”

While in Washington, many leaders have taken the opportunity to have quiet sidelines with potential Trump administration foreign policy officials. Keith Kellogg, a retired general who was national security adviser to former Vice President Mike Pence and continues to advise Trump, said last month that he had received 165 requests for briefings from foreign officials since November and had granted 100 of them. Kellogg noted that he does not speak officially on behalf of Trump or the Trump campaign.

Many international decision-makers — including the Ukrainian leaders who have the most to lose — were hedging their bets against Trump returning to office. That was evident Tuesday in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s choice of venue for his speech: the Reagan Institute, in a room packed with Republican luminaries and European diplomats.

While he tried not to comment directly on the US election campaign, Zelensky urged Biden to allow Ukraine to use US long-range weapons to attack military bases on Russian territory “and not wait for November or any other event.”

“America… is too great for small deeds. Don’t wait for months. America can be great every day,” Zelensky said.

When asked later by Fox News host Bret Baier how closely he follows the U.S. election, he replied, “I think sometimes more closely than you do, Bret,” which drew laughter from the crowd.

Ukrainian leaders have said they hope to stay above the tumultuous U.S. presidential race, mindful of their role in Trump’s first impeachment in 2019, when as president he delayed defense aid to Ukraine until evidence of Biden’s alleged corruption in Kyiv was presented.

“We don’t have to fit into every political process. We have to make sure that we secure our survival through political processes,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna said in an interview.

NATO decision-makers have been in deep discussions for months about how to deal with Trump’s resurgence. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the Biden administration opposed a direct NATO role in providing military aid to Kyiv, hoping to avoid Russian perceptions that the alliance was directly fighting Moscow.

That reluctance has waned as Ukraine’s early heroism has been tempered by recent Russian battlefield victories. Meanwhile, Trump has risen in the polls, and European fears have grown. NATO policymakers agreed in the run-up to the summit to create a new NATO command that would take on many of the coordination roles that the Pentagon had provided. But the U.S. military will retain a key role even under the new agreement.

Policymakers quietly acknowledge that securing the alliance against Trump can only go so far — not least because Trump is not the only leader to question NATO’s policies toward Ukraine and Russia. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited Moscow and Beijing ahead of the summit, to the consternation of many European officials, and has advocated for Russia-friendly policies within the alliance and the European Union. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has also endorsed similar policies.

Some leaders say a Trump presidency could be good for NATO, especially if it prompts lagging European countries to increase defense spending.

“I always tell Europeans, ‘Stop panicking about Trump. You’ve done this before, you’ve done it for four years, and you know what? It wasn’t actually that bad for Europe,’” Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, told reporters during a briefing. “There was some harsh rhetoric and harsh language that certainly ruffled feathers. But the policies that Trump has put in place toward Europe have not been harmful to NATO.”

The spending push has been supported by right-wing leaders in Europe who share many of Trump’s migration-scepticism and pro-Ukraine views, including Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Polish President Andrzej Duda.

Trump and Duda “are friends. They understand each other’s values. They understand credibility when it comes to security commitments,” said Jacek Siewiera, head of Duda’s National Security Bureau.

Italy’s ambassador to the United States, Mariangela Zappia, said NATO’s core interests would withstand the elections.

“I think the NATO summit will be essentially a confirmation that democracies can choose different paths but ultimately stick to common principles: in this case, borders cannot be changed by aggression,” she said.

Pro-NATO politicians hope that under the leadership of new Secretary General Mark Rutte, diverging political visions can be contained, and the latter has met Trump multiple times and has become known for his tact in managing sometimes tense interactions.

That would put him in the tradition of his predecessor as Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, who gained praise in the Trump era for finding ways to work with the former U.S. president.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said July 10 that he expects the United States to remain an ally regardless of the 2024 presidential election results. (Video: The Washington Post)

“He made a conscious decision not to pick a fight with the president of the United States, not to question him publicly or privately and never to be caught talking about him,” said Camille Grand, a former deputy secretary general of NATO who is now a leading policy expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Oana Lungescu, who was NATO’s spokeswoman from 2010 to 2023 and is now a distinguished fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, said Stoltenberg’s team produced a single, easy-to-read chart that showed increases in defense spending in Europe. The alliance also sought ways to give Trump credit for pushing allies to spend more.

“These numbers were real — it’s about how you shape them and how you use them (to show) that this is getting results, that NATO is a victory,” she said.

Rutte, 57, spent 14 years wrangling political coalitions as Dutch prime minister and is seen as a talented and experienced diplomat with a candid, pragmatic style. Those who have worked with him say he is deeply committed to the transatlantic relationship and will do anything to protect it.

“He deeply believes in the strength and power of U.S.-Europe cooperation as a force that can promote Western values ​​on the international stage, and he will speak about that,” said a senior European official who has worked closely with him for years. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

Rutte is seen as someone who can hold his own, firmly but politely — including with Trump. In a famous Oval Office interaction in 2018, Rutte clearly objected when Trump, making impromptu remarks on trade, suggested it would be “positive” if the U.S. and Europe did not reach an agreement.

“No,” Rutte said as Trump continued his speech. “It’s not positive,” Rutte continued, smiling. “We have to think of something.”

Trump shook his hand and moved on.

Some senior officials say the best way to improve NATO’s ability to withstand pressure from Trump is simply to spend more money. Now, 23 NATO countries meet the alliance’s baseline spending target, up from nine just a few years ago.

“Europe has to get involved, regardless of the outcome of the U.S. election,” Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström said in an interview. “We also have to take more responsibility for Ukraine, because Ukraine is in our backyard.” Sweden, NATO’s newest member, currently spends about 2.2 percent of its GDP on defense.

Ellen Nakashima and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

By meerna

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