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Belgium: NATO Frantically Tries to Trump-Proof President’s First Visit to Bruxelles HQ

NATO UNDER STRESS reports NATO is scrambling to tailor its upcoming meeting to avoid taxing President Donald Trump’s notoriously short attention span. The alliance is telling heads of state to limit talks to two to four minutes at a time during the discussion, several sources inside NATO and former senior U.S. officials tell Foreign Policy. And the alliance scrapped plans to publish the traditional full post-meeting statement meant to crystallize NATO’s latest strategic stance. 
On May 25, NATO will host the heads of state of all 28 member countries in what will be Trump’s first face-to-face summit with an alliance he bashed repeatedly while running for president. NATO traditionally organizes a meeting within the first few months of a new U.S. president’s term, but Trump has the alliance more on edge than any previous newcomer, forcing organizers to look for ways to make the staid affair more engaging. 

“It’s kind of ridiculous how they are preparing to deal with Trump,” said one source briefed extensively on the meeting’s preparations. “It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child — someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re freaking out.”

Still, despite these changes, experts are wary of how Trump will react to NATO meetings and their long-winded, diplomatic back-and-forth among dozens of heads of state, which can quickly balloon into hours of meandering discussions. One former senior NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described these meetings as “important but painfully dull.”

Rank-and-file diplomats always try to push for shorter, more efficient meetings at NATO. “It’s not so unusual that they strain to try to keep it interesting and short and not dragged down into details,” said Jim Townsend, who served as the Pentagon’s top NATO envoy until January. But what is unusual is the president. 

“Even a brief NATO summit is way too stiff, too formal, and too policy heavy for Trump. Trump is not going to like that,” said Jorge Benitez, a NATO expert with the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. 

Another change: NATO traditionally publishes a formal readout, known as a declaration, after each major meeting or summit. While they’re often lathered in diplomatic drivel, declarations signal new strategies and key policy shifts that come out of closed-door meetings, giving direction to allies and the NATO bureaucracy — and showcasing alliance unity toward rivals like Russia, a former senior NATO official told FP.

This year, NATO has scrapped plans to publish a full formal meeting declaration. One NATO official said that’s because it’s not a full summit, like past major NATO gatherings in Warsaw in 2016 or Wales in 2014. “It’s not necessary to have another full declaration, as it’s not a full summit,” the official said. “This meeting is just much more focused.”

But behind closed doors, other officials are giving a different reason. NATO isn’t publishing a full declaration “because they’re worried Trump won’t like it,” another source said.

Experts say a declaration could be invaluable to European allies still struggling to get a read on Trump’s stance on Europe. Four months into office, Trump hasn’t clarified U.S. policy toward Europe — he cheered Brexit and appeared to endorse anti-Europe candidate Marine Le Pen in the recent French elections — let alone toward NATO.

Trump rattled NATO allies during the campaign by slamming the alliance as “obsolete” and openly praising Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since he became president, top administration officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence, traveled to Brussels to soothe Europeans’ nerves and reiterate customary U.S. commitments to the 68-year-old alliance. Meanwhile, Trump declared in April during a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that the alliance is “no longer obsolete.”

But the president’s erratic policy shifts and surprise Twitter storms on other international issues have NATO jittery, a former senior NATO official told FP. (Trump offered a taste of this during his awkward meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in March, where he refused to shake her hand; German officials also said he handed her a fake “bill” for overdue NATO payments, though the White House swiftly denied those claims.)

“People are scared of his unpredictability, intimidated by how he might react knowing the president might speak his mind — or tweet his mind,” the former official said.

Ultimately, to keep Trump on board, NATO will probably set out to sell those recent changes as a concession to Washington, even though “98 percent of the changes NATO undertook are because of Russia, not because of Trump,” Benitez said.

That might secure Trump a happy ending to this first meeting, but could spell more trouble down the road.  “They may give Trump credit, but privately many allies feel they’re being bullied into it,” Benitez said. “Trump’s approach to NATO is poisoning the relationship.”  One former NATO official said the agenda meant to mollify Trump appeared to amount to repackaging what NATO was already doing — increasing its defense spending and continuing to support U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and the counter-Islamic State campaign — in a new wrapper for the president.

“They think they’re fine because they’re going to put old wine in new bottles,” one former senior U.S. official told FP. Whether Trump buys it remains to be seen 

"NATO's overall state of mind", an EU parliamentarian said , "is panicky, for fear, not only to avoid stepping on the toes of their self-glorifying "Trumpland" leader, but  also the ever increasing  and likely possibility that the EU is on the verge of developing its own independent military force, which won't be a tool of US foreign policy anymore."  

Given the context of the above story, not all, however, is bad for NATO.  

An interesting report recently came out, produced by NATO and the Millennium Project, which is quite practical in nature and worth reading: "Identification  of  Potential Terrorists and Adversary Planning" , edited by Theodore J. Gordon, Elizabeth Florescu, Jerome C. Glenn and Yair Sharan .


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