BRUSSELS — You know those awkward large family dinners around the holidays, with the one loud, boorish relative that everyone dreads but is studiously polite to? In the picturesque cobblestone-lined streets of Brussels, that’s what NATO officials are expecting when President Donald Trump visits in roughly two months’ time.
“He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t care,” one top Western official told The Daily Beast.
“At least Tillerson knows what he doesn’t know, and he’s keeping his mouth shut,” the official said of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, citing preliminary conversations with the former oil executive.
“We’re worried about what [Trump] might promise,” or what he might be goaded or baited into pledging, said a U.S. official.
All of the officials interviewed spoke anonymously in order to speak frankly about unclassified matters, fearing, as do many serving officials, future retaliation by the Trump administration.
The Secretary of State was clearing the way for Trump’s visit with his Friday trip to Brussels, but European officials are still bracing for an unwelcome public dressing down when Trump gets here, and the way the Friday meeting came about hasn’t helped.
Tillerson followed Art of the Deal-style rules by forcing a change in the date when all 28 NATO foreign ministers would meet, moving it to this Friday, though it was originally scheduled next week. The White House said Tillerson couldn’t attend then because it conflicts with the Chinese premier’s visit to Washington. So, everyone else had to change their schedules to accommodate the American.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the fact that he was coming at all shows “a clear signal” that the U.S. values NATO, but the message received by other NATO representatives was that Washington calls the shots.
When he arrived, Tillerson repeated his boss’s mantra that NATO members have to do more to fight terrorism, and that they also have to map out exactly how they plan to ramp up to investing 2 percent of their GDP in defense in the next decade, or sooner.
“Our goal should be to agree at the May leaders meeting that by the end of the year all allies will have either met the pledge guidelines or will have developed plans that clearly articulate how, with annual milestone progress commitments, the pledge will be fulfilled,” he told the ministers.
All 28 NATO members already committed at the 2014 Wales Summit to reach the full investment target by 2024, but Trump as well as Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May have said other countries are not moving fast enough, a bit like being reminded by your neighbor that you said you’d paint your house sometime this year.
“Unfortunately, whether it’s intended or not, Secretary Tillerson has some ground to make up because of the president’s views on NATO,” said Derek Chollet, a former Obama administration official now at the German Marshall Fund. It didn’t help that after meeting with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump tweeted that Germany owes “vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid.”
That was strongly rebuffed by German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who explained in a statement that “there is no debt account in NATO,” i.e. Trump misunderstood that each country is supposed to invest that 2 percent of GDP in its own military, not send it to an uber-NATO budget. It’s not a question of “dues.”
“The defense spending also goes to UN peace missions, into European missions, and towards our contributions to the fight against ISIS terrorism,” she said.
“While we’ve been trying to get our allies to spend more since the ’90s, I think the way Trump’s been going about it has been counterproductive,” says Mark Jacobson, former NATO senior civilian representative to Afghanistan. “While only five out of 28 are spending 2 percent, you motivate with a private scolding,” he said, adding that what Germany had done was making sure they have a smaller, but expeditionary force. “Two percent doesn’t mean squat if your forces aren’t deployable.... It’s an imperfect metric.”
NATO members also don’t appreciate the lecture when they feel like they’ve already invested heavily in fighting terrorism, losing roughly 1,000 troops in the war in Afghanistan. They were answering Washington’s call to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks, the first time NATO’s Article 5 ever was triggered.
But the nagging from Uncle Sam is preferable to what many NATO members feared—that the Trump administration would look the other way on the annexation of Crimea simply to achieve better relations with Russia.
“We no longer think they’ll do that,” one of the top Western officials said, because of reassuring anti-Moscow comments in closed-door conversations with Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis in Munich.
It’s the wild-card tweets and offhand comments that have NATO—and American—officials worried.
“We just never know what he’s going to say,” one of the senior Western officials said.
“I always thought that the word of the president of the United States was the ultimate guarantor of NATO,” said British Parliamentarian and ex-UKIP Brexiteer Douglas Carswell, someone who would have seemed a natural ally for Trump. “I look at [his] tweets, and I’m not quite sure what the word of the president of the United States constitutes anymore,” he told an audience at the Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum last week.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, announcing Trump’s attendance at the upcoming NATO meeting, insisted Trump is looking forward to the chance to “reaffirm our strong commitment to NATO, and to discuss issues critical to the alliance, especially Allied responsibility sharing and NATO’s role in the fight against terrorism.”
There’s a fear among U.S. officials that Trump may get in over his head, and be baited into promising more than the U.S. can deliver.
One U.S. official imagined a conversation like the French asking, "Mr. President, we really need help from your military to stop the refugee flow," and Trump replying, "We have the greatest military in the world. Absolutely." And then sending U.S. warships to help. What he would likely not be aware of is that if refugees get picked up by U.S. warships, they have to be flown to the United States, and repatriated from U.S. soil.