By Michael Pearson
A little more than a month after a contentious G7 summit, U.S. President Donald Trump will soon meet with NATO leaders in Brussels, followed a few days later by a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The meetings come amid heightened tensions between the United States and Europe over a range of issues, as the Center for European and Transatlantic Studies (CETS) at the Georgia Institute of Technology recently laid out in A Changing Europe in an Uncertain World, which emerged from the Center’s recent international conference on the European Union’s global role amid the impending departure of the United Kingdom, differences with the Trump administration, and rising Russian and Chinese assertiveness.
To assess what might happen during these meetings, we turned to three CETS faculty members: Alasdair Young and Vicki Birchfield both professors and co-directors of the center, and former NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove, now CETS senior fellow and distinguished professor in the Sam Nunn School.
What are we likely to see out of the NATO summit?
Young: The July NATO Summit is occurring in a broader context of extremely strained transatlantic relations. The recent G7 summit ended in acrimony, particularly over trade. The EU has just adopted ‘rebalancing’ tariffs on American exports in response to U.S. tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum. If the U.S. decides to escalate the dispute, the world’s most valuable economic relationship will be facing an all-out trade war. In addition, America’s European allies disagree with the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, and European firms will be particularly adversely affected by the sanctions that the U.S. will, as a result of its withdrawal, reintroduce on companies that do business in and with Iran. Given that context and President Trump’s view that NATO’s European members have been free-riding on U.S. defense spending for far too long, an acrimonious summit is almost certain.
Breedlove: The most important thing at every summit is to reaffirm our commitment to solidarity. I also think we’ll see them continue the work that started in Wales and Warsaw, the last two NATO summits. We have made a lot of progress on the things we set out to do there, and there’s a great positive story to tell about changing our readiness and responsiveness, changing the force posture, changing the supreme commander’s ability to respond quickly.
Some European leaders are openly worrying about a repeat of the G7 summit. The tone among European leaders following that meeting was largely restrained. If there’s a repeat, should we expect the same?
Young: The European leaders are treading a thin line. They want to avoid antagonizing President Trump, but they also want to resist his policies and demands that run contrary to their interests. As a consequence, they are likely to refrain from any public recriminations in the wake of the summit. So long as President Trump’s pressure on the Europeans to do more for their own defense remains rhetorical, NATO will not face a deeper challenge and the transatlantic relationship will remain in its sorry state. If he threatens to change the U.S.’s relationship with NATO, for instance by withdrawing troops or reducing U.S. participation in NATO’s rotating deployments in Poland and the Baltic States, which would present a significantly greater challenge.
Birchfield: President Trump’s worldview and modus operandi do not conform well to the multilateral setting in which he will find himself next week in Brussels, and coming on the heels of a confrontational and obstructive G7 meeting last month in Canada, Europeans are anxious and frankly bracing themselves for a repeat performance where the impact will be considerably more consequential. It appears that President Trump is conflating trade and national security issues and perhaps deliberately so, according to commentators such as Adam Posen of the Peterson Institute and Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, and he may very well bring his wrath over perceived trade imbalances with the EU into the NATO meeting, which would be misplaced to say the least.
Defense spending among the United States’ NATO allies will surely be an issue at the summit. How is NATO doing on that front, and how is Trump likely to respond?
Breedlove: What you see is NATO putting its money where its mouth is, meaning that nations have started putting money towards upgrading their readiness and response. There are some notable holdouts, but the numbers have gone up dramatically and the nations are beginning to reinvest now in the militaries that they they’ve been using as a cash cow for the last 10 or so years. This is actually a very positive story. I am still looking at this as well over a glass half full.
Young: In response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the NATO members agreed at the 2014 Wales Summit to increase their military spending. Those spending less than NATO’s guideline of 2 percent of GDP on defense agreed to increase their spending to that level within a decade. Most European members of NATO have increased their military spending as a share of GDP in each of the past two years, with some of the largest increases occurring among the more eastern members. Nonetheless, all but a few European NATO members spend well below the 2 percent target and many, including Germany, are unlikely to attain that target by the deadline. Europe’s limited military spending has long vexed U.S. administrations. President Trump, however, has been much more forceful than his predecessors on the subject. Those more aggressive demands alone, however, are unlikely to fundamentally affect the European NATO members’ funding priorities given the other challenges they face and priorities they have. There are, however, indications that some European NATO members feel a greater need to become more militarily self-reliant because they cannot rely on the U.S. under Trump.
How Will President Trump’s planned summit with Russian President Putin play at the NATO summit?
Breedlove: He will be with all of the heads of state of NATO, and can consult with his allies before meeting Putin. What would have really worried me is if President Trump had gone to see Mr. Putin without consulting allies. That message would have been incredibly hurtful. But this is a good dynamic.
Young: The meeting in and of itself is not a problem. The real issue is what comes out of it and how the optics contrast with the NATO Summit. The concern is that President Trump will make concessions on Ukraine in exchange for Russian cooperation elsewhere, most notably in Syria. The President’s room for maneuver is limited by Congress restricting his ability to lift sanctions. He might, however, provide rhetorical support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, as he is reported to have done in private. That would provoke a rift with America’s European allies, deviate from U.S. policy and provide solace to Russia.
Birchfield: In and of itself the meeting is not problematic. French President Macron recently made a state visit to Russia after having hosted Putin with great pomp at Versailles one year ago. However, in the context of a looming trade war between the U.S. and the EU compounded by Trump’s cheerleading for Brexit and derisory remarks made about both NATO and the EU, European reactions are understandably circumspect. Trump’s recent statement about the “EU being created to take advantage of the United States” baffled European leaders as it illustrates an alarming misunderstanding of the historical roots of the postwar European project. Both the EU and NATO are pillars of the liberal world order crafted by the United States and its allies over 70 years ago, and many fervent Atlanticists are hoping not to be witness to their further destruction next week in Brussels and Helsinki.