As the president departs Washington Monday to attend events marking the seventieth anniversary of the NATO alliance hosted in London, European allies are said to be "bracing for Trump". Past NATO venues have seen Trump openly chastise allies related to his familiar theme of the Europeans shouldering more of the defense spending burden, making the Dec.3-4 summit ripe for a "bull in a China shop" moment.
But the milestone commemorative summit, despite shorter meetings on the schedule interspersed among anniversary-related events, could actually see multiple "bulls" clash and set off fireworks if the hoped-for collective cool is not kept, also given the presence of Turkey's Erdogan — who has lately sought to essentially blackmail the EU and NATO if he doesn't get his way in northern Syria — as well as tensions related to France's Macron asserting NATO's "brain death" in controversial statements.
Not skipping a beat, Erdogan just days ago seized on the opportunity to ask if it was the French president that was actually "brain dead" — sparking an ongoing row between the two leaders and France summoning the Turkish ambassador.
But this is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the number of potential fault lines which uneasy allies will attempt to navigate when leaders meet just outside London starting Tuesday. Axios somewhat comically points out: "Best-case scenario, for Europeans: Trump sticks to the script."
But Bloomberg summarizes it better, as multiple parties will in fact need to stick to the script, not to mention the explosive domestic political situation the host country finds itself in: "With three significant member states bringing conflicting agendas to the table at a gathering that takes place in the closing stretch of a charged U.K. election campaign, the event risks fanning concern about NATO’s future, rather than celebrating what alliance officials and leaders routinely call the most successful military grouping in history," Bloomberg observes.
Here are ten areas where things could go sideways, awkward, or even get explosive among allies.
Or alternately we could described them as reasons why Putin will be kicking back to grab the popcorn this week...
1) The US administration has just reduced its aid paid to NATO as part of Trump's controversial push for fairer defense spending distribution (though NATO has thrown the US a bone, it remains to be seen if Trump pressures further).
The U.S. has contributed about 22% of NATO's roughly $2.5 billion in annual common fund costs. Defense officials told CNN the Trump administration sought to reduce its contribution to roughly 16%, a roughly $150 million difference.
"Under the new formula, cost shares attributed to most European Allies and Canada will go up while the U.S. share will come down," the NATO official said. "This is an important demonstration of Allies’ commitment to the Alliance and to fairer burden-sharing." — USA Today
2) The prior Trump-Macron 'bromance' has soured as the two reportedly snipe each other behind the scenes.
Three senior administration officials told me Trump has been deeply annoyed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who recently told The Economist that "what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO" and that the United States under Trump's leadership appears to be "turning its back on us." — Axios
3) Trump's unpredictability & European leaders' anxiety based on prior meetings.
"All I'm hearing is great anxiety about what Trump might do or say," said Ivo Daalder, who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013.
"The last two NATO meetings didn't go well," Daalder told me. "In 2017, [Trump] refused to reaffirm Article 5, and in 2018, he threatened to walk away from NATO if Europeans didn't spend more on defense." — Axios
4) Macron's "brain death" comments and abiding awkwardness of and disagreement over 'an alliance in search of a mission'.
Officials from the U..S. and Britain were at pains last week to highlight NATO’s successes, including a renewed sense of purpose since Russia’s 2014 aggression in Ukraine. Defense spending is on the rise and NATO is expanding into counter-terrorism, cyber security, and now even space.
...Such accomplishments however are being drowned out by the increasingly public dispute over what NATO should focus on, and what it should stand for. In an apparent attempt to contain the debate, Germany has proposed forming an expert group to report on the future political shape of the alliance. — Bloomberg
5) Europe braces for
Trump Erdogan — that increasingly bigger thorn in Europe's side, as we recently commented:
Turkey - which has become a critical splinter within NATO and according to some is doing Putin's bidding - is refusing to back a NATO defense plan for the Baltics and Poland unless it gets more political support for its fight against Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria. Turkey also criticized Macron for agreeing to talks with a Syrian Kurd politician whom Ankara considers an extremist.
6) UK's crucial and highly charged upcoming 'Brexit election' and fears over what Trump might say (or Tweet).
As a presidential candidate in 2016 and then as president since early 2017, Trump has shown no restraint in showing support for Britain’s exit from the European Union and critiquing the politicians involved in the country’s long-running Brexit debate.
But with Johnson leading polls as he faces Dec. 12 elections, the prime minister who is hosting the London NATO summit wants Trump to mind the guard-rails, putting Trump in the unusual position of trying to avoid his normal impulse to comment on whatever he wishes. — Reuters
I will be representing our Country in London at NATO, while the Democrats are holding the most ridiculous Impeachment hearings in history. Read the Transcripts, NOTHING was done or said wrong! The Radical Left is undercutting our Country. Hearings scheduled on same dates as NATO!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 30, 2019
7) Ongoing US impeachment theater and what is sure to be multiple attempts of journalists to bait Trump on a world stage.
Johnson’s pressure prompted the White House to stress, as a senior administration official said, that Trump “is absolutely cognizant of not, again, wading into other country’s elections.”
That strategy could be put to the test as Trump faces reporters a number of times on the trip, including at what is expected to be a news conference on Wednesday. — Reuters
8) NATO fragility and havoc of UK election.
Were Johnson to lose to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, that would give NATO yet another individual to worry about at its next summit, due in 2021.
Over his career the socialist firebrand has called NATO “a danger to world peace and a danger to world security,” among other things. — Bloomberg
9) European criticisms that Trump has played into Russia's hands with his divisive rhetoric on NATO.
Trump has often misrepresented how the NATO alliance functions and is funded, misleadingly saying that other nations pay the US to defend it. Critics of the president feel his approach to the NATO alliance, among other foreign-policy decisions, have served to the advantage of Russia as it fuels the war in Ukraine and mounts aggressive activities elsewhere. — Business Insider
10) Also, the question of China and conflicting NATO priorities.
There's also increasing division in NATO over China, over whether to allow Huawei to operate 5G networks and over a growing alignment between Beijing and central and eastern European countries, Daalder said.
It's "dividing east and west Europe economically, politically and, increasingly, strategically as China's power and influence in Europe is on the rise." — Axios