NATO summits used to be amiable, difference-solving, bond-forging occasions. But ever since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, these events have spun out into cringeworthy spectacles of discord and disarray. Now, the allies are trying a new tack.
Instead of a formal summit, when they gather in London this week, the NATO members are holding a “leaders’ meeting,” a more ceremonial, brief affair, to mark NATO’s 70th anniversary, which was earlier this year. Trump and his counterparts will attend a reception—not even a dinner—with Queen Elizabeth II on Tuesday, and they will spend just three hours in a working session on Wednesday. Importantly, they will not be required to issue a joint communiqué, as they do at formal summits. They are agreeing not to have to agree.
Not calling a meeting a “summit” might seem like a meaningless designation, but the low-key London meeting is a sign of the concern with which NATO members view the U.S. president—they seemingly are trying to keep Trump’s disruptions to a minimum. At this point, member states likely see the diminished gatherings as the only way to ride out the Trump presidency in hopes that America will one day recommit itself unequivocally to the alliance.
But straining to avoid controversies that might rile the U.S. leader also prevents the alliance from tackling other serious challenges. Turkey, NATO’s most controversial member, has not only invaded parts of Syria; it is also drawing closer to Russia, even buying weapons from Moscow. French President Emmanuel Macron’s vision for European defense is at odds with the views of other members, notably Germany, while smaller member states worry that, in a time of crisis, they might not be able to rely on NATO’s defense guarantee.
Whatever comes of this week’s meeting, the most powerful signal might just be that NATO cannot reach a consensus on anything important.
For seven decades, NATO has been a central vehicle for maintaining a measure of global stability, helping to deter some of the most aggressive instincts of the West’s—and America’s—foes. But by his words and actions, the U.S. president has repeatedly undercut the organization.
Even before he was elected, Trump questioned NATO’s usefulness, calling it “obsolete.” Four months after taking office, he traveled to Brussels for his first NATO summit. It was a shocking performance: He lambasted allies for not spending enough on defense and refused to affirm Article 5 of the alliance treaty—the one committing all members to come to the aid of any member that is attacked. Article 5 has been invoked only once so far in history, when Trump’s hometown was attacked on September 11, 2001.
Two weeks after that Brussels summit, under enormous pressure, Trump stated his commitment to Article 5. But doubts have lingered, with sporadic reports that he has discussed pulling the United States out of NATO altogether. It’s hard to imagine any U.S. foreign policy shift that would please Russian President Vladimir Putin more.
The hope that Trump’s behavior and words in 2017 were a fluke, perhaps the product of inexperience, were laid to rest at his second NATO summit, last year: He arrived late, insulted other members, canceled meetings and threatened to leave the alliance if members didn’t rush to increase defense spending.
Similar debacles have plagued G-7 meetings, to such a degree that Macron decided to forgo the group’s traditional communiqué this year to avoid the disaster of 2018. NATO seems to be taking the same approach.
NATO summits are generally held to introduce new members, make key decisions or mark special occasions. They occur most, though not all, years. When NATO celebrated its 50th anniversary, President Bill Clinton hosted a summit. This past spring, for the actual 70th anniversary, NATO held only a foreign ministers’ meeting, and Trump did not host the gathering even though it took place in Washington. Instead, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a rare invitation to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to address Congress, pushing back against doubts about the U.S. commitment by conspicuously highlighting bipartisan support for the alliance and America’s role in it.
Trump’s complaints about members not contributing enough of their gross domestic product to defense are nothing new. In 2014, under pressure from President Barack Obama, members pledged to boost defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024. As spending has climbed, Trump has misleadingly taken sole credit. Member states are happy, however, to let him do so, hoping that can ease his disparaging attitude toward the alliance.
Still, NATO is already not what it used to be—something other members have begun to acknowledge. Macron sent shock waves across Europe a few weeks ago, declaring in an Economist interview, “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO.” Europe, he argued, needs to recognize that it can no longer count on America.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel shot back at Macron, saying NATO is more important now than during the Cold War. Countries close to Russia, feeling threatened by Putin’s expansionism, didn’t disagree with Macron’s assessment of the problem, but suggested that questioning NATO’s commitment to mutual defense was irresponsible and dangerous.
Aiming to mollify the U.S. president days before this year’s gathering, Stoltenberg recently announced that the allies’ defense spending rose this year by 4.6 percent, with most members on track to meet the 2-percent-of-GDP threshold by 2024. Meanwhile, Trump, ahead of the London meeting, slashed Washington’s contribution to NATO’s collective budget, a mostly symbolic move affecting primarily administrative operations—but still another slap from the U.S. president.
America’s allies appear to be doing what the recently ousted U.S. secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, pleaded for in a stinging Washington Post op-ed, asking the allies to “bear with us as we move through this moment in time.” The downgraded gatherings, the nonsummits, look like an effort to endure the Trump era and hope something better comes afterward.
In the meantime, the member states are avoiding having to reach consensus on any major issues. We already are witnessing the dangerous erosion of NATO’s ability to deter aggression, to Putin’s undoubted pleasure, and America is becoming more isolated and less able to shape global events. As NATO tries to survive, the greatest danger facing the alliance today, incredibly, is the president of the United States.