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COMMENTARY

NATO turns 70 with charm offensive to woo Trump

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg meets Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday. After the US president's remarkable threats last year to pull out of the military alliance, Mr Stoltenberg's chief goal this week will be to deepen support in Washington for the organisation during its 70th birthday week.

It is partly for this reason that NATO has moved its annual summit of foreign ministers in the coming days from Brussels. Mr Stoltenberg wants to consolidate ties not just with Trump, but also on a bipartisan basis and will therefore address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday.

While the US president has been relatively quiet about NATO in recent months, few have forgotten the extraordinary scenes last year when he put the alliance's annual summit in disarray by threatening to pull the United States out. His antics, coming so swiftly after the previous month's G7 debacle in Canada, underlined the growing tensions within the West under his presidency.

Mr Trump's behaviour confirmed pre-summit anxiety and led to cancellations of a series of press conferences and bilateral meetings. What had been particularly feared, as indeed happened, was that he would criticise NATO colleagues, and then go on in the days that followed to have a cordial meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, undermining confidence in the transatlantic alliance.

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In that sense, what happened was a mirror image of the G7 debacle in Canada shortly before. There, after openly lambasting key, longstanding Western allies, Mr Trump went onto the Singapore summit to heap praise on North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un despite little, if any, new concessions coming from Pyongyang over its nuclear programme.

Mr Trump aside, there is also at least one another dimension of the potential fracturing of the West which is the UK's anticipated departure from the EU. In this context, there will be a show of unity this week around the prospect of strong continued defence and security cooperation between London, what is scheduled to become the EU-27, and NATO going forward.

NATO has long cooperated with the EU on a range of security challenges for many years, including currently in the Aegean Sea to help tackle the migrant and refugee crisis. And the two organisations are demonstrating even higher levels of reciprocal cooperation in areas like hybrid and cyber threats, and increasing maritime security.

SUCCESSFUL MILITARY ALLIANCE

This coming week's charm offensive from Mr Stoltenberg will seek to underline the continuing relevance to Washington of the alliance of countries with a collective population of around one billion. For all its weaknesses, NATO remains one of the world's most-successful-ever military alliances, and has helped underpin the longest period of sustained peace in the West's modern history.

Mr Stoltenberg will stress to US decision makers how the alliance is reforming to meet new challenges and opportunities as it recalibrates strategic direction in a rapidly changing security environment. At last year's summit, for instance, modernisation measures announced included launching a new training mission in Iraq, and extending funding for the Afghan military, underpinned by a new military command structure, and increased force readiness.

Looking ahead to the 2020s and beyond, one of the key areas that the Trump team is reportedly encouraging NATO to address is potential security threats from China. What is percieved as Beijing's growing global assertiveness is a rising concern in Washington, and numerous Trump officials see the nation as a near-peer competitor.

As well as focusing on the new, the old (Russia) will also be a key topic this week, especially around Ukraine. Following Moscow's annexation of Crimea, and the wider destabilisation of Ukraine, NATO's relationship with Russia is at one of its lowest points since the end of the Cold War.

And there remains alarm in certain quarters about the West's capability to respond to what is perceived as a significantly enhanced Russian security threat. Whereas Russia is estimated to have increased defence spending by some 80 per cent between 2008 and 2014, the counterpart figure for NATO countries collectively was a decrease of around 20 per cent, although there have been some increases in defence spending since then in numerous European states, and Canada, and a significant rise in the US.

This burden-sharing issue, which Mr Trump has seized upon, has long been a sore spot for the US, which accounts for around two-thirds of total NATO defence spending. For instance, Barack Obama had previously urged allies during his own presidency to meet the 2 per cent of GDP spending targets on defence.

At last year's summit, the US president claimed a political victory over NATO allies on the issue. Yet, while he claims that alliance members agreed to reach spending of 2 per cent of GDP on the military faster than previously planned, the reality is that he received no significant concessions in this area.

Numerous NATO states - before last year's summit - have been pushing ahead with increases in defence spending, including a cross-section of the EU-28 under a new European Defence Action Plan, approved last year, that advocates greater military cooperation between the union. Here it is a combination of Russian military assertiveness, instability in the Middle East and Africa, not just Mr Trump's apparently uncertain commitment to Europe's security, that has driven this spending move.

CAMPAIGN AGAINST TERRORISM

One of the key areas of NATO activity that Mr Trump appears to wholeheartedly approve of is the so-called campaign against terrorism. As a presidential candidate in 2016, he asserted that the alliance "is going to have to be either readjusted to take care of terrorism or we're going to have to set up a new coalition, a new group of countries to handle terrorism because it is out of control".

Mr Trump was therefore pleased with the announcements about Afghanistan and Iraq last year. These build on measures in 2017 that allow NATO to assume a stronger status in tacking terrorism in the Middle East.

Taken overall, this week's NATO charm offensive is an attempted antidote to last year's summit which saw Mr Trump's disruptive diplomacy in full force. Mr Stoltenberg is well aware that, fulsome as the US president might be in his praise this week, he appears to have significant continued concerns about the whether the alliance is fit for purpose as it moves into its eighth decade.

  • The writer is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics