NATO & Trump: relationship status – complicated

by Patrick Truffer (originally published in German). He graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Affairs and completes a Master of Arts program in International Relations at the Freie Universität Berlin.

The agenda was clear-cut for the NATO Summit of the heads of state and government of the Member States, on Thursday, 25 May 2017: Strengthening the fight against terrorism, discussions on defence spending, introduction of the new 1.1 billion-euro NATO headquarters in Brussels, where the summit was held, and reception of the new heads of state and government, such as British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, and of course US President Donald Trump. The Prime Minister of Montenegro, Duško Marković, was present at a NATO Summit meeting for the first time, because Montenegro will become the 29th member of NATO in June 2017. The objective of the exercise: To demonstrate unity. However, Trump’s presence resulted in the NATO Member States being seen as anything but united.

Trump criticised NATO during the presidential election: After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the defence alliance did not fulfil the originally intended purpose anymore, and the associated costs were too high for the United States, especially compared to the contribution other NATO Member States. As president, he would consider withdrawing the United States from NATO if the alliance is not restructured, the fight against terrorism is not actively supported, and if the costs are not distributed more equitably (D’Angelo Gore, “What’s Trump’s Position on NATO?“,, 11.05.2016). After being elected US President, his Vice President Mike Pence tried to smooth the ruffled feathers at the Munich Security Conference: “The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to this transatlantic alliance.” At the same time, he underlined the demand for a more balanced distribution of costs: “The promise to share the burden of our defense has gone unfulfilled for too many for too long, and it erodes the very foundation of our alliance. When even one ally fails to do their part, it undermines our ability to come to each other’s aid. […] Let me be clear on this point, the President of the United States expects our allies to keep their word to fulfill this commitment, and for most that means the time has come to do more.”

Trump’s priorities were also clear at the meeting with the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in mid-April. Trump honoured the role of NATO during the Cold War, but saw the present and future role of the defence alliance primarily in the fight against international terrorism and in the prevention of migration flows. Specifically, he expects NATO to be active in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), and in ending the civil war in Syria. Furthermore, as agreed, each NATO Member State has to invest at least 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) in defence. According to his logic, the NATO Member States would even have to settle open bills: the difference to the 2% of GDP which they have not raised in recent years.

Mr President, I thank you for your attention to this issue. We are already seeing the effect of your strong focus on the importance of fair burden-sharing in the Alliance. — NATO-Generalsekretär Jens Stoltenberg

Even though Trump will hardly care, his reflections on the last point are wrong. The “2 percent target” is based on a non-binding guideline adopted by the Member States in 2006 at the NATO Summit in Riga. This rule was reaffirmed at the NATO Summit in Wales in autumn 2014: All NATO Member States wish to invest 2% of GDP in their defence by 2024. However, this declaration has more to do with a political than with a realistic promise – thus, there is no binding obligation (Jan Techau, “The Politics of 2 Percent: NATO and the Security Vacuum in Europe“, Carnegie Europe, 02.09.2015). And yet it is problematic that Stoltenberg praised Trump at the joint press conference in Washington: Trump’s criticism has made the fair distribution of costs a major theme. Stoltenberg even went so far as to assert that the first positive effects of this have become evident (“Joint Press Conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the President of the United States, Donald Trump“, NATO, 13.04.2017).

Diplomatically, [Trump’s] speech was inept at best and deliberately insulting at worst. — Jeff Rathke, deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Of course this is about “soothing diplomatic language”, but for Trump diplomacy is a foreign language. In other words: Stoltenberg has unintentionally empowered Trump in his role as a debt collector. His criticism addressed to the other heads of state and government during the speech in honour of the 9/11 memorial at the NATO headquarters, that they are not going to meet their financial obligations in relation to NATO, is thus not surprising. However, taken together with his failing to affirm the article 5 mutual assistance clause, this was met with little sympathy from the other heads of state and government (Rosie Gray, “Trump Declines to Affirm NATO’s Article 5“, The Atlantic, 25.05.2017).

The rest of the NATO Member States were clearly taking pains to please the new US president. Not only were topics about Russia systematically avoided, but one of Trumps’ priorities was addressed before the NATO summit: NATO announced its intention to join the US-led coalition to fight IS. This is primarily a symbolic gesture, because many NATO Member States and NATO allies are already part of the coalition, and directly support the fight against IS. Since the last summit, NATO has supported the coalition with AWACS aircraft equipped with modern radar and communications technology, which will be further expanded. NATO is also conducting a training mission in Iraq. However, there is no plan for a direct combat effort. In addition, the NATO Member States want to better combine their efforts in this area with a newly created counter-terrorism coordinator.

There was also some movement on the issue of a more balanced distribution of costs. Each Member State has to submit an individual plan to answer three questions:

  1. How will the “2 percent target” with an investment of at least 20% of that money in new equipment be achieved?
  2. What additional financial resources will be directly invested in key NATO systems?
  3. What contribution will be made to the NATO missions, operations, and other efforts.

The first planning documents have to be available in December and examined by the defense ministers in February of next year.

The times when we could completely rely on others are basically over. I have come to realise this in the last few days. […] We Europeans must take our fate into our own hands.” — Deutsche Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel

The NATO Summit in Brussels was conceived as a small, brief meeting, which primarily was for “bringing the new US President on board”. Strategic decisions were neither expected nor made. Despite symbolic concessions, the relationship with Trump remains complicated, which Trump’s lack of support for NATO’s mutual assistance clause clearly demonstrates. The public affront to the other heads of state and government during the speech in honour of the 9/11 memorial at the NATO headquarters should also not be overstated. At the moment, the effective engagement of the US armed forces in Europe is unambiguous: The US is behind NATO (see also: Louis Martin-Vézian, “Operation Atlantic Resolve: Back to Europe“,, 11.03.2017). This is also demonstrated by Trump’s submitted proposal for the US national budget of 2018. This involves extending the financing of the European Reassurance Initiative, which includes Operation Atlantic Resolve, from this year’s 3.4 billion to 4.8 billion US dollars (David M. Herszenhorn, “NATO Cheers Trump’s Military Budget“, POLITICO, 24.05.2017). However, Trump is not a patient person, and will hardly want to wait until 2024 until the other member states (perhaps) raise their defence spending to 2% of GDP. If, in the medium term, the European NATO member states do not invest significantly more for their own security, the US financial support could quickly and noticeably decrease. Essentially, Trump can hardly be contradicted with regard to one point: Why should US taxpayers be financially responsible for the security of Europe, if taxpayers are not prepared to do so in Europe? However, Trump would have needed to engage in real persuasive efforts, rather than adopt a school master-like attitude. In the long term, this has has been a disservice, which especially became apparent in the context of the meeting with the EU and the other G7 countries.

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Info box: Noble Jump 2017
The NATO exercise Noble Jump 2017 will take place in June, after somewhat more than a month of preparation. The engagement of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force will be practised in Romania with around 4,000 soldiers from 9 Member States. The exercise will start with an Alert Exercise, whereby the troops and equipment from military bases in Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Poland, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania will be relocated over a few days within the exercise area by rail, air, and sea. This exercise is not only a challenge in terms of infantry; it is especially a logistical challenge. For NATO, this represents a milestone in its ability to defend itself against an external aggressor.

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More information
Trump evidently continued instructing the other heads of state and government during the subsequent dinner: Judy Dempsey, “Trump Leaves NATO“, Carnegie Europe, 26.052017.

This entry was posted in English, Patrick Truffer, Security Policy.

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