NATO’s Anniversary Summit Was a Success for the Alliance and President Trump

January 08, 2020
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In early December, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) celebrated its seventieth anniversary at a summit in London. Born in the early days of the Cold War, the alliance has successfully weathered decades of political, technological, financial and security challenges. Today, the alliance again faces a threat from the East. This time it is a revanchist Russia that is working hard to reestablish the old Soviet empire while simultaneously seeking to undermine NATO. 

The London Summit was more than just a celebration of NATO's longevity. It was a planning meeting focused on moving the alliance forward regarding defense of its eastern border, reiterating the need for increased defense spending, and responding to changes in the threat of terrorism.

Public reports of discord among NATO leaders dominated the headlines. Much of the U.S. press focused on President Trump’s sometimes critical attitude towards NATO and a relatively small number of testy interactions with a few of his counterparts. There was much less mention in the media of some other NATO leaders’ behavior that was potentially much more damaging to the work of the alliance. Less than a month prior to the London Summit, French President Macron had declared NATO to be “brain dead” and called on the European Union to pursue an independent defense capability.  Turkish President Erdogan had threatened to block NATO’s plans to strengthen the defense of Poland and the Baltic countries until the alliance labeled the Kurdish YPG political organization a terrorist group.

NATO appears to be able to handle President Trump’s unconventional style better than many expected at the beginning of his term. In many ways, NATO may have benefitted from the President’s bluntness and demands that other countries treat the United States fairly, whether it be in trade or the common defense.

Many pundits and experts on both sides of the Atlantic have roundly and consistently criticized President Trump for asking questions regarding the continued value of the alliance and, in particular, for demanding that the rest of NATO pay their fair share of the overall defense burden. In 2014, NATO members agreed to increase their defense spending by 2024 to no less than 2 percent of their respective GDPs on defense. They also promised to spend at least 20 percent of their defense dollars on equipment. But to date, only seven members—the U.S., U.K., Greece, Estonia, Romania, Poland and Latvia—have met their obligation.  On their current trajectories, approximately 15 member states are expected to reach the 2 percent goal by the 2024 deadline. Some, such as Germany, hope to meet their obligation by 2030.

It is clear that by shining a light on the failure of most NATO members to meet their agreed spending obligations, President Trump has had an effect. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged the power of the President's criticisms. "President Trump has been very clear. He is committed to NATO… but at the same time, he has clearly stated that NATO allies need to invest more,” the former prime minister of Norway said on Fox News. “So we see some real money and real results, and we see that a clear message from President Trump is having an impact. NATO allies have heard the president loud and clear. NATO allies are stepping up."

In response to the growing threat from Russia and President Trump’s demands, NATO members, excluding the U.S., have increased their defense spending by some $100 billion. Many also are spending more of their available funds on modernization. The U.K., Italy, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and, most recently, Poland, are acquiring the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Poland has done much more, growing the size of its military and procuring the advanced U.S. Patriot air and missile defense system, new artillery pieces, unmanned aerial vehicles and modern main battle tanks.

The communique issued at the end of the Summit included a clear commitment to the spending goals pushed by President Trump:

We are determined to share the costs and responsibilities of our indivisible security. Through our Defense Investment Pledge, we are increasing our defense investment in line with its 2% and 20% guidelines, investing in new capabilities, and contributing more forces to missions and operations. Non-U.S. defense expenditure has grown for five consecutive years; over 130 billion U.S. dollars more is being invested in defense.

The 2019 London Summit took several additional important decisions. The allies reaffirmed their commitment to collective defense, agreeing to undertake a fundamental review of NATO’s strategy, including the definition of terrorism and the potential for a new strategic relationship with Russia. Turkey withdrew its threat to block NATO’s new defense plans. The President of Poland, who came to London with fears that the alliance’s internal disagreements would undermine his country’s efforts to bolster its security, declared the summit a success.

The London Summit took place amid a major redeployment of U.S. forces into Europe. Not long ago, the U.S. had reduced its ground force deployment in Europe to two understrength brigade combat teams. Today, the U.S. has a full Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) deployed to Poland on a rotational basis. Moreover, the Pentagon is planning on a major expansion of this deployment with a forward-deployed division headquarters, logistics units and an MQ-9 Reaper drone squadron. Longer term, the U.S.-Polish plan is to develop sufficient infrastructure to support the rotational deployment of two ABCTs plus additional combat enablers.

It is a pity that so much of the U.S. and European media’s reporting on the London Summit chose to focus on a few sharp exchanges between President Trump and some of his counterparts. They missed the big headline. NATO is stronger today than it was three years ago, and much of the increase in capabilities is due to President Trump.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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