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NATO heads of state and government want to make the alliance “Trump-proof” in Washington
NATO heads of state and government want to make the alliance “Trump-proof” in Washington

Former President Donald Trump will not be at the table with NATO leaders meeting in Washington this week, but he could be as leaders strategize about how to prepare the alliance for the possibility that its most senior leader could soon be a skeptic again.

Alliance policymakers have transferred control of key elements of military aid to Ukraine from the U.S. leadership to NATO. They have appointed a new NATO secretary general with a reputation for being particularly flexible in responding to Trump’s erratic impulses toward the alliance. They are signing decade-long defense commitments with Ukraine to insulate military aid to Kyiv from the political ups and downs. And they are increasing defense spending, Trump’s biggest point of contention with NATO.

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

Four countries also announced on Wednesday that F-16 fighter jets donated to Ukraine will be ready for use over the summer. And the alliance’s leaders accused China of providing “decisive support” to Russia’s war in Ukraine – their strongest statement yet against Beijing.

But despite efforts to strengthen the alliance, Trump’s shadow loomed like a dark cloud over the Washington Convention Center where the summit is taking place. European leaders are privately wondering whether this is a farewell to a US president who is committed to a transatlantic agenda – a bipartisan constant of US foreign policy from World War II until Trump entered the White House in 2017.

“If we elect him a second time, it will be extremely telling from a European perspective about the direction the US is heading,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the transatlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “This sets Trump up for the next four years, but there are growing concerns that the US will be less committed to Europe in the long term.”

Few European politicians believe that Trump would formally withdraw the United States from NATO. Congress recently passed A bill that binds the country to the alliance and whose withdrawal would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

But many fear that Trump would bring a much more transactional approach to the alliance, and some are taking seriously his promise that he will check whether NATO is meeting its defense spending commitments before deciding whether to come to its aid in the event of an attack. The question of how to deal with Trump dominates NATO policymakers’ social discussions in Washington, along with the related obsession with whether Biden will abandon his re-election bid.

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

“The main criticism of former President Trump, but also of other US presidents, was not primarily against NATO, but 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.”

When asked whether European leaders are discussing Trump behind closed doors, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre replied in an interview with the Washington Post: “They won’t believe me if I say no.”

Many politicians are using their time in Washington to quietly hold talks with potential foreign policy appointees in the Trump administration. Keith Kellogg, the 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 briefing requests from foreign officials since November and approved 100 of them. Kellogg stressed that he was not speaking in an official capacity for Trump or his campaign.

Many international politicians – including Ukrainian politicians who have the most to lose – have hedged against the possibility of Trump returning to office. This was also reflected on Tuesday in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s choice of venue for his speech: the Reagan Institute, in front of a room full of Republican bigwigs and European diplomats.

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

When asked by Fox News host Bret Baier how closely he had followed the US election, he replied to laughter from the crowd: “I think sometimes more closely than you, Bret.”

The Ukrainian politicians said they hoped to emerge from the turbulent U.S. presidential campaign, mindful of their role in Trump’s first impeachment in 2019. As president, Trump had delayed defense aid to Ukraine while pushing for evidence of Biden’s alleged corruption in Kyiv.

“We do not have to adapt to every political process. We have to make sure that we ensure our survival through political processes,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna said in an interview.

NATO policymakers have been debating intensely for months how to deal with Trump’s resurgence. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Biden administration rejected a direct NATO role in providing military aid to Kyiv, hoping to avoid the Russian impression that the alliance was directly at war with Moscow.

That reticence has evaporated as Ukraine’s initial heroics have been tempered by recent Russian successes on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Trump’s poll numbers have risen and concerns in Europe have grown. NATO leaders agreed ahead of the summit to set up a new NATO command to take on many of the coordination tasks the Pentagon had provided.

Politicians privately admit that efforts to Trump-proof the alliance are limited – not least because Trump is not the only politician who has questioned NATO policy toward Ukraine and Russia. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico also support similar measures.

Some politicians believe that a Trump presidency could be good for NATO, especially if it pushes the weakening European states to spend more on their defense.

“I always say to Europeans, ‘Stop freaking out about Trump. You’ve done this before, you’ve done this for four years, and you know what? It actually wasn’t that bad for Europe,'” Rachel Rizzo, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, said in a briefing with reporters. “There was some tough rhetoric and tough language that certainly caused some excitement. But the policies that Trump pursued toward Europe were not harmful to NATO.”

These efforts to spend more money have been supported by right-wing politicians in Europe who share many of Trump’s migration-skeptical policy views but are still pro-Ukrainian, such as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Polish President Andrzej Duda.

Trump and Duda “are friends. They know each other’s values. They also understand credibility when it comes to security commitments,” said Jacek Siewiera, the head of Duda’s National Security Office.

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

“I believe the NATO summit will indeed be a confirmation that democratic systems can choose different paths, but ultimately insist on common principles: in this case, that borders cannot be changed by aggression,” she said.

The pro-NATO politicians hope to manage the fragmented political visions under the leadership of incoming Secretary General Mark Rutte, a long-serving Dutch prime minister who met repeatedly with Trump and became known for his tact in handling sometimes tense interactions.

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

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

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

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

“The numbers were real – it’s about how you frame them and how you use them to show that results are being achieved, that NATO is a win-win,” she said.

Rutte, 57, spent 14 years as Dutch prime minister, busy forging political coalitions. He is considered a skilful and accomplished diplomat with an open, pragmatic style. Those who have worked with him say he is deeply committed to transatlantic relations and will do whatever he can to protect them.

“He believes deeply in the power and strength of U.S.-European cooperation as a force to represent Western values ​​on the world stage, and he will stand up for that,” said a senior European official who has worked closely with him for years and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

In a now famous conversation in the Oval Office in 2018, Rutte demonstratively disagreed when Trump, in off-the-cuff remarks about trade, said it would be “positive” if the US and Europe failed to reach an agreement.

“No,” Rutte said as Trump continued. “It’s not positive,” Rutte continued with a smile. “We need to work something out.”

Trump shook his hand and walked on.

“Europe must take action regardless of the outcome of the US elections,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström in an interview. “We must also take more responsibility for Ukraine, because Ukraine is in our backyard.”

Ellen Nakashima and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

By Everly