We’re now used to the hand-wringing that accompanies President Donald Trump’s trips to international summits. Whether at meetings of the United Nations, the Group of 20, the Group of Seven or — as is the case this week in London — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Trump seems to bring with him a cloud of anxiety.
The venerable military alliance is marking its 70th anniversary this year, but Trump’s notoriously transactional worldview has deepened questions about its future. More broadly, his stated skepticism about U.S. security commitments to Europe, curiously friendly disposition to Russia’s autocratic ruler, indifference to multilateral diplomacy and apathy about human rights and the rule of law abroad have all been widely interpreted as signs of the Western liberal order fraying under his watch.
But when the two-day confab of NATO leaders kicks off Tuesday, Trump won’t be the only polarizing figure in attendance. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an illiberal demagogue reviled by many in the European establishment, may furrow the most brows after his government acquired and then tested an advanced Russian anti-aircraft missile system, a move some U.S. officials fear will give Russia a back door to more closely observe NATO militaries.
Then there’s French President Emmanuel Macron, who provocatively declared in an interview last month that Europeans are experiencing “the brain death of NATO” and raised doubts over the collective defense obligations of the organization’s member states. Macron’s eagerness to move further from a U.S.-guaranteed security umbrella earned a veiled rebuke from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. His disapproval of the Turkish invasion of northern Syria led Erdogan to fire back on Friday, mocking his younger French counterpart’s “inexperience” and instructing him to check his own brain.
NATO officials probably hoped this week’s ceremonies would highlight the alliance’s ability to be fit-for-purpose in the 21st century. Instead, the current state of tensions seem to underscore its creaking disunity. Only a few hours of formal meetings have been scheduled, which may help prevent rifts from widening further. The major news ahead of the summit was that the Trump administration is likely to cut U.S. funding to NATO’s operating budget, bringing in line its contributions to that of Germany, while other member states will work to make up the shortfall. Trump may tout the new dispensation as a victory, even though it has nothing to do with his much bigger gripe about the majority of NATO member states not raising their military spending to 2% of their countries’ gross domestic product.
“It will be a great tribute to how much all the NATO allies value the institution if we manage to get through this leaders meeting without President Trump, President Macron or President Erdogan doing something damaging to the alliance,” Kori Schake, a former National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration, told Bloomberg News.
For the summit’s host, too, the event has become an unfortunate and probably unwanted interruption. Announced two years ago by the British prime minister at the time, Theresa May, the meeting was supposed to be a showcase moment for a post-Brexit Britain — divorced from Brussels, sure, but still anchored at the heart of the transatlantic alliance. But Brexit has yet to happen, and the country’s political paralysis paved the way for a bitterly contested general election next week.
Trump figures into that equation, too. The U.S. president has expressed his sympathy and support for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who hopes the election will give his Conservatives a more pliant Parliament through which he can force through Brexit. Trump, though, remains a staggeringly unpopular figure in Britain and will be once more met by protesters. Johnson has implored Trump to keep his nose out of the election and may try to maintain his distance from Trump during the visit this week.
As my colleagues report, Johnson’s opponents — primarily, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn — hope to pounce on any whiff of Trumpian election interference. That includes allegations that Conservative officials have already discussed essentially auctioning off segments of Britain’s public sector in putative post-Brexit trade talks with the United States.
“At his rallies, Corbyn asserts that Trump has formed a dark alliance with Johnson — intended, among other claims, to procure the sale of Britain’s beloved National Health Service to U.S. pharmaceutical companies,” my colleagues wrote.
“Labour is saying that one of the most beloved institutions is being threatened by the most hated figure on the public stage at the moment,” Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, told The Washington Post, referring to the National Health Service. “It’s very clever.”
But Trump may be too fixated on his own predicament in Washington, where the next phase of the impeachment inquiry is scheduled for Wednesday. Over the weekend, he tweeted his apparent dismay that hearings would be scheduled on the same day as a NATO gathering north of London. Johnson, faced with the prospect of a photo op alongside Trump a week before Britain heads to the polls, may wish circumstances were different, too.