25 May 2017

What can Nato get from Donald Trump’s first visit?

Theresa May has just landed in Brussels for her first Nato summit. Her office will be trying to check with her as there has been even more leakage from US intelligence to the US media as Good Morning America has broadcast images from “inside the bomb factory.” We will hear her response to this quite soon after arrival at Nato itself.

Much of the other Nato member countries’ focus here is the whole purpose of Nato itself.

One defence expert tells me that the US Defence secretary and the US Secretary of State have effectively been quietly coaching Nato members and senior officials in how to handle their boss – guiding them how to coax President Trump into supporting the aims of the military alliance of which the US is supposed to be the cornerstone member.

They are fast learners, these Nato types, and are planning to lay it on with a trowel for the US President’s first visit to Brussels (or the “hellhole” as he termed it in the past). He is opening the new Nato headquarters and unveiling the 9/11 memorial, which commemorates the only occasion Nato has invoked its mutual self-defence Article 5, in support of his own nation.

US President Donald Trump (C) arrives for the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit at the NATO headquarters, in Brussels, on May 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / THIERRY CHARLIER (Photo credit should read THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images)

Until today, the closest anyone had come to getting an on the record commitment to Article 5 from President Trump was Theresa May’s attempt to pin him down at the White House press conference on her US visit in January. The prime minister said she and the president were 100 per cent committed to Nato and paused to look across at him, underlining how he’d signed up to that sentiment. There was a nod from President Trump but until now that’s as much as Nato has got from the man himself in terms of public commitment to a military alliance President Trump described as “obsolete.”

This afternoon they’ll be hoping for more. What value they truly put on his words is another matter.
Nato members and the senior figures in President Trump’s administration whom they regard as “grown-ups” are united in wanting a strong commitment to Article 5 in the hope it keeps Russia from testing their resolve. Nato believes that Russia would like nothing more than to punch a giant hole in the Nato pact. There have been regular Nato exercises anticipating a Russian incursion into Baltic Nato member state territory or limited hybrid warfare on such a state. If the US President was equivocal in his response to such a move, the theory runs, a wholes series of states could start peeling away from Nato, looking to Russia for economic support and military protection, altering the balance of power in Europe and exciting the antennae of other powers like China as they survey the possibilities for greater global influence.

President Trump’s relationship with Russia raises profound fears amongst many Nato members. His commitments are regarded as shaky and his administration often chaotic. The best Nato members will hope for from this gathering is that the US president doesn’t add to uncertainty about his commitment to Nato and that’s about where things are expected to end up.

President Trump will beat the drum for greater contributions from Nato member countries to their mutual defence effort. This chart show how short some members are of the 2 per cent of GDP defence spending in 2024 target. You see how far short some countries are of the target below (credit: The Economist).
Credit: The Economist
Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis have advised Nato countries to talk up their spending and show there’s a route map to getting to the target. The US currently coughs up 68 per cent of Nato’s total spending.

Of course, for another country to up its spending it needs some consent from the voters and for many of the worst performers on this spending metric, nothing would put them off more than a direct appeal from President Trump.

The “dealmaker” President has also been catered for with a Nato commitment to join the anti-ISIS coalition and put counter-terrorism on the agenda even though most present here see that as a matter for police and intelligence services.

Nato countries have set their ambition low for today. Let’s see if even that can be met.

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