President Donald Trump’s boorish behavior at the Group of Seven summit in Canada last month already has raised fears of a repeat performance at the NATO summit in Brussels next week. In this climate of rising tensions and sinking expectations, the most European leaders hope for is to keep Trump from derailing the conference and playing into the hands of Russia, China and North Korea by weakening the Atlantic alliance. Trump should refrain from compounding the damage he’s caused and look to reset relations with the allies on more mutually beneficial terms.
Trump has used the run-up to the annual, two-day summit that begins Wednesday to berate the leaders of several NATO allies —among them, Germany, Canada and Norway — for spending too little on their own defense and suggesting his administration might respond by reconsidering America’s military commitments around the world. Coming on the heels of Trump’s tariffs on metals imported from Europe, Canada and Mexico and his rumblings of a broader trade war, and in the wake of his bellicose appearance at the G7 summit, the Europeans are working desperately to keep the NATO conference from going off the rails. The administration, which also alienated Europe by withdrawing the United States from the multiparty Iran nuclear deal, has also signaled in recent days it intends to pick a new fight over economic sanctions against Iran.
There is nothing wrong with pushing the allies to contribute more toward collective defense. Shared sacrifice is the entire principle behind NATO. But the allies are already moving in that direction. After years of defense cuts, NATO’s annual report for 2017 reported three consecutive years of increases. The allies are spending more on major, new capabilities, and this year, eight allies are expected to meet the target of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, up from three of NATO’s 29 countries to meet the target when it was agreed to in 2014. And more than half are expected to meet that goal by the target date of 2024.
Trump would better advance western security by lauding the progress that’s been made and by affirming the need to continue this commitment by pointing to NATO’s relevance in the face of a resurgent Russia and China and the threat of global terror. NATO must be unified and resolved to respond effectively to Russia’s aggression along its borders and to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The allies must also find common ground in addressing terror threats and in managing a range of crises that call out for coordination, from responding to immigrants crossing the border to cracking down on countries and groups that sponsor attacks on NATO soil and against its elections and cybersecurity systems.
That Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on his way home from the NATO summit makes it all the more important that NATO leadership emerges next week with a common voice. Harping publicly about spending levels that are keeping NATO’s defense commitments on track serves no useful purpose and undermines the alliance’s cohesiveness in confronting Putin. Trump also should realize that extending his trade war into the security realm only gives Russia, China, North Korea and others an opening to test the west’s military resolve. NATO faces enough daunting challenges without the alliance’s historic leaders turning inward for a fight that could be avoided through diplomacy.