Tuesday, July 23, 2024

NATO Leaders Move to ‘Protect Alliance from Trump’ in Washington


Former President Donald Trump doesn’t have a seat at the table when NATO leaders meet in Washington this week, but he might be better off doing so, as officials weigh strategies for how to adapt the alliance to the possibility that its top leader could soon become skeptical again.

Alliance policymakers have transferred control of key elements of military aid to Ukraine from U.S. leadership to NATO. They have appointed a new NATO secretary general who has a reputation for being quick to respond to Trump’s unpredictable impulses toward the alliance. They are signing a 10-year defense commitment with Ukraine to try to shield military aid to Kiev from political volatility. And they are increasing their own defense spending, Trump’s biggest irritant when it comes to NATO.

The leaders meeting on Wednesday agreed that they would support Ukraine “on its irreversible path to full Euro-Atlantic integration, including NATO membership” — a wording that has been the subject of intense negotiations in recent weeks, with President Biden initially opposing the use of the word “irreversible.”

Four nations also announced Wednesday that F-16 fighter jets they donated to Ukraine would be operational later this summer. Alliance leaders also described China as a “critical enabler” of Russia’s war in Ukraine, their strongest language yet toward Beijing.

But despite all the efforts to bolster the alliance, Trump’s shadow has been cast over the Washington conference center where the summit is taking place. European leaders are quietly wondering whether this is a farewell to an American president who has embraced a transatlantic agenda—a bipartisan constant in American foreign policy from World War II until Trump took office in 2017.

“If we elect him a second time, I think that from a European perspective, is extraordinarily revealing of where we are in the United States,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “So that’s a protection for Trump for the next four years, but there’s a growing concern that the United States will be less committed to Europe in the longer term.”

Few European policymakers say they believe Trump will formally withdraw the United States from NATO. Congress recently passed a Legislation that binds the country to the alliance and requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate to withdraw.

But many fear that Trump will bring a more hands-off approach to the alliance, and some take seriously his pledge that he will look at whether the alliance is meeting its defense spending commitments before deciding whether to come to its aid if it is attacked. How to deal with Trump dominates social conversations among NATO policymakers in Washington, along with obsession with whether Biden will abandon his reelection bid.

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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday downplayed concerns about a second Trump presidency.

“The main criticism from former President Trump, but also from other American presidents, was not primarily against NATO, but rather against NATO allies not investing enough in NATO – and that has changed,” he told reporters. “The clear message has had an impact, because now the allies are really stepping up their efforts.”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I said no,” Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store said in an interview with The Washington Post when asked whether European leaders were talking about Trump behind closed doors.

In Washington, several leaders are taking the opportunity to have quiet conversations on the sidelines with potential Trump administration officials on foreign policy. Keith Kellogg, a retired general who was then Vice President Mike Pence’s national security adviser and continues to advise Trump, said last month that he had received 165 requests for briefings from foreign officials since November, and had approved 100 of them. Kellogg noted that he does not speak officially for Trump or his campaign.

Indeed, many international policymakers—including Ukrainian leaders, who have much to lose—have been betting on Trump’s possible return to office. That was evident Tuesday in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s choice of venue for his speech: the Reagan Institute, in a room filled with prominent Republicans and European diplomats.

Although he was careful not to comment directly on the US election, Zelensky urged Biden to allow Ukraine to use long-range US weapons to strike military bases on Russian territory “and not wait until November or some other event.”

When Fox News anchor Bret Baier later asked him how closely he followed the US election, he said, “I think sometimes it’s closer than you are, Bret,” to laughter from the audience.

Ukrainian leaders have said they hope to outmaneuver the turbulent U.S. presidential race, recalling their role in Trump’s first impeachment in 2019. As president, Trump delayed defense aid to Ukraine while pressing for evidence of Biden’s alleged corruption in Kiev.

“We don’t have to fit into every political process,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna said in an interview. “We have to make sure that we survive political processes.”

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NATO policymakers have been locked in deep debate for months about how to manage Trump’s revival. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the Biden administration resisted a direct NATO role in providing military aid to Kyiv, hoping to avoid Russian perceptions that the alliance was in direct conflict with Moscow.

But that hesitation has faded as Ukraine’s early heroics have been tempered by Russia’s recent battlefield gains. At the same time, Trump’s poll ratings have soared and European concerns have grown. NATO policymakers agreed in the run-up to the summit to create a new NATO command that would take over many of the coordinating roles the Pentagon had provided.

Policymakers quietly acknowledge that protecting the alliance from Trump will not be enough—not least because Trump is not the only leader who has questioned NATO’s policy toward Ukraine and Russia. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico have also advocated similar policies.

Some leaders say a Trump presidency could be good for NATO, especially if it pushes laggard European countries to spend more on their defense.

“What I tell Europeans all the time is: Stop freaking out about Trump. You’ve done this before, you’ve done this for four years, and guess what? It’s not been bad for Europe, actually,” Rachel Rizzo, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, told a news briefing. “There has been some harsh rhetoric and harsh language that has certainly ruffled feathers. But the policies that Trump has put in place toward Europe have not been harmful to NATO.”

These efforts to spend more money have won support from right-wing leaders in Europe who share many of Trump’s immigration-skeptic policies but are also pro-Ukraine, such as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Polish President Andrzej Duda.

Trump and Duda are “friends,” said Jacques Siewera, head of Duda’s national security office. “They understand their values. They understand credibility when it comes to security commitments as well.”

Italy’s ambassador to the United States, Mariangela Zappia, said that NATO’s core interests can withstand the elections.

“I think the NATO summit will actually be a confirmation that democracies can choose different paths, but in the end they stand together on principles: in this case, borders cannot be changed through aggression,” she said.

Pro-NATO policymakers hope to manage divided political visions under the leadership of incoming Secretary General Mark Rutte, who met Trump repeatedly as the Dutch prime minister and has become known for his skill at managing sometimes tense interactions.

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That would put him in the tradition of Stoltenberg, who won praise during the Trump era for finding ways to work with him.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on July 10 that he expects the United States to remain a NATO ally regardless of the results of the 2024 presidential election. (Video: The Washington Post)

“He made a very conscious decision not to pick a fight with the American president, not to challenge him publicly or privately, and never to talk about him,” said Camille Grand, a former deputy secretary general of NATO who is now a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Stoltenberg’s team has produced a single, easy-to-read chart showing increases in European defense spending, said Oana Lungescu, NATO’s spokeswoman from 2010 to 2023 and now a distinguished fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. The alliance has also looked for ways to thank Trump for pushing allies to spend more.

“The numbers were real – it was about how they were shaped and how they were used. [to show] “This gets results, and NATO is a win,” she said.

Rutte, 57, spent 14 years trying to build political coalitions as Dutch prime minister and is seen as a skilled and intelligent diplomat with a straightforward and pragmatic style. Those who have worked with him say he is deeply committed to transatlantic relations and will do everything he can to protect them.

“He believes very strongly in the power and cohesion of U.S.-European cooperation as a force for projecting Western values ​​on the world stage, and he will talk about that,” said a senior European official who has worked closely with him for years, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

In a famous place now Oval Office Interaction 2018Rutte responded pointedly when Trump, who made off-the-cuff remarks on trade, suggested he would be “positive” if the United States and Europe failed to reach an agreement.

“No,” Rutte said, as Trump continued. “This is not positive,” Rutte continued, smiling. “We have to find a solution.”

Trump shook his hand and then moved on to another topic.

“Europe needs to step up its efforts regardless of the outcome of the US election,” Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström said in an interview. “We also need to take greater responsibility for Ukraine, because Ukraine is in our backyard.”

Ellen Nakashima and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.