NATO leaders try to ‘Trump-proof’ alliance in Washington

Former President Donald Trump will not have a seat at the negotiating table when NATO leaders meet in Washington this week, but he better not as officials devise strategies to adapt the alliance to the prospect that the supreme leader will soon be skeptical again.

Alliance policymakers have shifted control over key elements of military aid to Ukraine from U.S. command to the NATO umbrella. They have appointed a new NATO secretary general known for being particularly nimble with Trump’s unpredictable impulses toward the alliance. They are signing a decade-long defense pledge with Ukraine to try to shield military aid to Kiev from the ups and downs of politics. And they are increasing defense spending, Trump’s biggest gripe with NATO.

In the Washington convention center where the summit is being held, Trump is not often explicitly mentioned, but he casts a dark shadow. European leaders are quietly wondering whether this will be their last encounter with an American leader committed to a transatlantic agenda — a bipartisan constant in American foreign policy from World War II to Trump’s first arrival in the White House.

“If we elect him a second time, I think that, from the perspective of the Europeans, is extremely telling about the direction of our travel in the United States,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the transatlantic security program at the think tank Center for a New American Security and a former senior intelligence official who focused on Russia. “And so it’s Trump-proofing for the most immediate 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 would formally withdraw the United States from NATO. Congress itself recently “Trump-proofed” U.S. membership by passing legislation binding the country to the alliance and requiring a two-thirds majority in the Senate to withdraw.

But many fear that Trump would bring a much more transactional approach to the alliance, and some take seriously his promise that he would look at whether they are meeting their defense spending targets before deciding whether to come to their aid if they are attacked. How to deal with Trump dominates social talk among NATO policymakers in Washington, along with the related obsession with whether President Biden will abandon his re-election bid.

Asked whether European leaders discuss Trump behind closed doors, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre told The Washington Post in an interview that “you won’t believe me if I say no. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to tell you what we’re talking about.”

While in Washington, many leaders are seizing the opportunity to have quiet conversations with potential foreign policy officials from the Trump administration. Keith Kellogg, the retired general who was former 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 fulfilled 100 of them. Kellogg noted that he does not speak in an official capacity for Trump or the Trump campaign.

Many international policymakers — including Ukrainian leaders, who have the most to lose — have hedged their bets against the possibility of a Trump return to power. That was evident Tuesday in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s choice of venue to deliver a speech: the Reagan Institute, before a room full of Republican luminaries and European diplomats.

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

“America … is too big for small actions. Don’t wait for months. America can be great every day,” Zelensky said.

When Fox News host Bret Baier then asked him how closely he was following the US elections, he replied, “I think sometimes more closely than you, Bret,” to laughter from the audience.

Ukrainian leaders said they hoped to remain above the tumultuous US presidential race, given their role in Trump’s first impeachment in 2019, when as president he suspended defense aid to Ukraine until there was evidence of Biden’s alleged corruption in Kiev.

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

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

That reticence has faded as Ukraine’s early exploits have been tempered by recent Russian victories on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Trump has risen in the polls and worries in Europe have grown. NATO policymakers agreed in the run-up to the summit to create a new NATO command that will assume many of the coordination roles that the Pentagon had provided. But the U.S. military will retain its key role, even under the new arrangement.

Policymakers quietly acknowledge that Trump-proofing the alliance can work only to a certain extent — not least because Trump is not the only leader to have questioned NATO’s policies toward Ukraine and Russia. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited Moscow and Beijing ahead of the summit, much to the consternation of many European officials, and has advocated Russia-friendly policies within the alliance and the European Union. Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico has also backed similar policies.

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

“What I always tell Europeans is, ‘Stop freaking out about Trump. You’ve done this before, you’ve done this for four years, and guess 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 harsh rhetoric and some harsh language that certainly inflamed people. But the policies that Trump pursued toward Europe were not harmful to NATO.”

This push for more spending is supported by right-wing leaders in Europe who share many of Trump’s skeptical policies on migration but are also pro-Ukraine. Examples include Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Polish President Andrzej Duda.

Trump and Duda “are friends. They understand their values. They understand credibility when it comes to security obligations,” said Jacek Siewiera, the head of Duda’s National Security Bureau.

Italian Ambassador to the United States Mariangela Zappia said NATO’s core interests are resilient to elections.

“I believe that the NATO summit will in fact be a confirmation of how democratic systems can choose different paths, but ultimately stand together on principles: in this case, borders cannot be changed through aggression,” she said.

Pro-NATO policymakers hope to reconcile the divided policy visions under the leadership of the new Secretary-General, Mark Rutte. Rutte was a Dutch prime minister who had met Trump regularly for years and became known for his tact in managing sometimes tense interactions.

In doing so, he would follow in the tradition of his predecessor as secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, who won praise during the Trump era for his efforts to work with the former US president.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on July 10 that he expects the United States to remain an 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 in public or private, and never to be caught talking about him,” said Camille Grand, a former NATO assistant secretary general who is now a senior policy officer at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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

“The numbers were real – it’s how you shape them and how you use them that matters [to show] that this is yielding results, that NATO is a victory,” she said.

Rutte, 57, has built political coalitions as prime minister of the Netherlands for 14 years and is seen as a skilled and astute diplomat with a candid, pragmatic style. Those who have worked with him say he is deeply committed to the transatlantic relationship and will do everything he can to protect it.

“He firmly believes in the power and strength of US-European cooperation as a force to project Western values ​​on the world stage and he will speak out in support of that,” said a senior European official who has worked closely with him for years, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

Rutte is seen as someone who can defend his position firmly but politely, even to Trump. In a now famous 2018 interaction in the Oval Office, Rutte emphatically resisted when Trump, with off-the-cuff remarks about trade, suggested that it would be “positive” if the US and Europe did not make a deal.

“No,” Rutte said, as Trump continued. “It’s not positive,” Rutte continued, laughing. “We have to come up with something.”

Trump shook his hand and moved on.

Some senior officials say the best way to resist Trump’s pressure is to spend more. There are now 23 NATO countries that meet the alliance’s baseline spending target, compared with nine a few years ago.

“Europe must move forward, regardless of the outcome of the US elections,” Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström said in an interview. “We must also take greater responsibility for Ukraine, because Ukraine is in our backyard.” Sweden, the newest member of NATO, now spends about 2.2 percent of its GDP on defense.

Ellen Nakashima and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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