July 13, 2018

IntelBrief: Trump and the NATO Summit 

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for a news conference during a summit of heads of state and government at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, July 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber).
  • On July 12, 2018, U.S. President Trump attended a NATO summit in Brussels that was dramatic, even by recent standards.
  • President Trump claimed ‘success’ in getting his way with respect to future NATO funding, while other NATO members stated they simply agreed to implement previously-set benchmarks and goals.
  • The frenzied media coverage of what is normally a scripted non-event is a hallmark of the “Trump Doctrine” for foreign affairs.
  • President Trump’s position was wholly inconsistent as he simultaneously claimed that NATO is obsolete all the while arguing that more NATO funding is necessary.


The 2018 NATO summit in Brussels was unlike any other in the alliance’s 69-year history. The United States, the leader with by far the most powerful military of the now 29-member alliance, has long viewed NATO as perhaps the most successful mutual-defense treaty organization in world history. The alliance is credited with having deterred war on the European continent between the West and Russia (and previously the Soviet Union). The view of NATO’s unqualified success is now changing, with President Trump repeatedly questioning the relevancy and value of the organization to the United States.

President Trump and the other NATO heads met in Brussels, amid an unprecedented level of publicity, speculation, and concern about a summit that previously, by design, did not make headlines. The stability of the alliance was taken as a given and not up for debate; now there is serious conversation about the very nature of the alliance, the fairness over ‘NATO dues,’ and a questioning of how the organization actually operates. Since he was candidate Trump, the now U.S. president has consistently portrayed NATO as a protection racket, one in which the U.S. is forever the sucker stuck paying the bill for a system which benefits Europe far more than the U.S. NATO-member defense spending has long been a contentious topic for U.S. administrations.

In 2014, NATO members agreed to spend 2% of their respective Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense by 2024. There are no ‘dues’ that members pay into NATO; each country sets their defense needs in line with their own budgetary processes and constraints. President Trump tweeted at the opening of the summit that the other NATO members were ‘delinquent for many years in payments that have not been made. Will they reimburse the U.S.?’ He repeated his view that the countries were ‘delinquent’ during the summit as well. This is a fundamental misstating of the facts by the U.S. president, perhaps as a tactic to drive more concessions on other matters, including trade. President Trump officially stated the U.S. was still committed to NATO—a statement that would not have made headlines at any point in the last 69 years until this summit—but has also hinted the U.S. would ‘go it alone’ if NATO members did not increase their defense spending.

All the media coverage notwithstanding, it is unclear what was agreed upon by the end of the summit. Unlike at the recent G7 conference,where President Trump refused to have the U.S. sign the perfunctory closing statement, he signed the NATO statement. However, that statement is at direct odds with much of what he said during the summit. Trump left the summit proclaiming a great personal victory, saying ‘so now we're very happy and have a very powerful, very, very strong NATO. More powerful than it was two days ago.’ Yet, on paper, nothing has changed. While President Trump states that ‘everyone’s agreed to substantially up their commitment. They are going to up it at levels never thought of before,’ other leaders stated otherwise. French President Macron said only that a ‘communiqué was issued yesterday. This communiqué is clear. It reaffirms the 2 percent by 2024 commitments. That’s all.’ Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated the same thing, that the members simply agreed to stick with the goals previously agreed upon.


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