July 12, 2018

Policy

What to Watch for at the 2018 NATO Summit

By: Andrew Koontz

The eyes of the world will be on the Brussels, Belgium, this week for the 2018 NATO Summit, an event that is already shaping up to reach historic levels of contentiousness. President Donald Trump has made it no secret that he has his fair share of qualms with the Atlantic Alliance, most of which revolve around issues of defense spending. In light of this week’s summit, here are three hot-button issues to keep in mind:

1. Defense Spending
This is the elephant in the room. The Trump administration isn’t the first to implore European allies to increase defense spending, but it has certainly been the most vocal. With only five of NATO’s 29 current members spending 2% or more of GDP on defense, this is a legitimate grievance. Current projections show 16 of 29 member states reaching the 2% goal by 2024 (the target date which was set back in 2014), but Trump wants to see increases quicker than six years from now. President Trump’s transactional foreign policy sees NATO’s benefits in terms of money and materiel rather than as the cornerstone of the western global system. Whereas previous administrations stressed the common values of the alliance, Trump is instead choosing to place his focus on how European allies can shoulder more of their own security burden rather than relying on the United States.

2. German-US Relations
Building off the first issue, German-US relations will be another area to pay close attention to as the summit gets underway. Not long after landing in Brussels, President Trump accused Germany of being “captive to Russia,” due in large part to their overreliance on Vladimir Putin’s regime for their energy needs. Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly shot back that Germany can “decide our own policies and decisions,” continuing a back and forth spat that has been ongoing since Trump’s inauguration. While Trump claims to have a strong relationship with Merkel, few of his public statements would support that claim. Germany is the most egregious example of NATO allies underspending, as they only spend a mere 1.24% of GDP on defense despite being the largest economy in the EU. As the summit continues, pay close attention to the language used by German officials. Whether they pursue an aggressive refutation of Trump’s claims will likely have major consequences for the Atlantic Alliance moving forward.

3. Trump-Putin Helsinki Summit
The Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki will likely have a major impact on the Atlantic Alliance in both the short and the long term. Issues such as the annexation of Crimea and war in Eastern Ukraine will be discussed, and there is a chance that Trump could grant a sort of de facto legitimization to Russia’s claims in Crimea, along with a loosening of sanctions. If the Helsinki Summit follows the path laid out in last month’s Singapore Summit with North Korea, we could see a suspension of upcoming NATO exercises that are scheduled for this fall. Such developments would likely spark massive outcry among member states, as many believe such an act could begin the unraveling of NATO itself.

While there are many issues that will undoubtedly be discussed at the Brussels Summit, these three will most likely receive the most attention. Hopefully this primer will help you make sense of the ongoing saga that is the Trump-NATO relationship. The Trump administration’s approach to this year’s summit could give European allies the jolt they need to increase their defense spending, or begin the unraveling of the Atlantic Alliance. Only time will tell.

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