Written by Ivan Lidarev.

On the eve of the NATO summit in Brussels on May 25, the alliance seems to be in crisis. The last year has brought to the White House a Jacksonian president who publicly called the alliance “obsolete” and questioned Washington’s commitment to allies who do not spend enough on defence. Even worse, President Trump’s softer stance on Russia has stood in contrast to his harsh criticism of the EU and NATO itself. With this background, many fear that NATO’s Brussels summit could produce a showdown over the critical issue of burden-sharing and deeply damage transatlantic relations. Distracted, NATO would be unable to meet urgent challenges in the Middle East and the Balkans or play a larger role in Asia.

Such pessimism, while understandable, is excessive. The Brussels summit is unlikely to be a dramatic showdown, as all sides need a successful meeting that shores up relations. President Trump needs to strengthen his credentials, amid a rocky start on the international stage, missteps over North Korea and Taiwan, and domestic tensions over his alleged links to Russia. For their part, European leaders do not want to strain relations with the main guarantor of their security at a time of internal weakness and international insecurity. While a much greater NATO role in Asia seems unrealistic, at Brussels the alliance will seriously discuss challenges in the Middle East. Burden-sharing, although divisive, is a legitimate and longstanding concern, reaffirmed by the unmet pledges of the 2014 Wales summit. Rather than a showdown, the negotiations over burden-sharing in Brussels would likely represent only one difficult moment in a long and complex process of give and take. Finally, the Trump administration has begun to moderate its earlier stance on NATO and seek to reassure allies in anticipation of the summit. In sum, the Brussels summit is unlikely to produce a crisis.

Instead, the summit offers an opportunity to bring much-needed clarity. The alliance has been plagued by ambiguity caused by Trump’s erratic behavior and by longtime indecision on larger issues, such as NATO’s role in the Middle East and Afghanistan, enlargement, and burden sharing. With this background, at Brussels, President Trump can bring clarity in three areas.

First, President Trump could clarify US relations with NATO allies. Trump will not only meet many NATO leaders for the first time, such as President Emmanuel Macron, but also will present the US position on transatlantic relations and answer important questions. One such question is whether transatlantic relations would change and whether NATO would be a priority under an “America First” administration. Another question is whether the author of the Art of the Deal is ready to make a deal on burden-sharing and what he will ask for in return? Yet another question is what role Washington is going to play on issues which have strained relations between allies, such as Brexit, migration and Turkey. Finally, the American president needs to answer whether his administration has moved beyond sending contradictory signals on transatlantic relations and now speaks with one voice.

Second, at Brussels President Trump can clarify his stance on the alliance’s long-term direction in the face of new challenges. The Trump administration could use the Brussels summit to take a clear position on five issue areas critical to the alliance’s future. The first area is the future set-up for burden-sharing, which, together with the rather symbolic two percent spending goal, also includes investment in new hardware (supposedly 20 percent of defence spending), force size, and deployment in operations. Another such issue area is NATO enlargement in South and East Europe, a controversial topic due to internal NATO divisions, fear of Russian reaction and commitment fatigue. Cyber defence is a third area critical to NATO’s future in which President Trump needs to build on the Obama-supported NATO Cyber Defense Pledge and promote an integrated system of cyber defence for the alliance.

On the Middle East, a source of terrorism, instability and immigration, President Trump needs to push NATO to take an active role in the region, alongside the US. NATO’s decision to consider the military assistance request of the Tripoli government, discuss joining the coalition against ISIS and establish a counterterrorism Hub for the South in Naples are important first steps. Finally, Washington needs to recommit NATO to the Afghanistan war, if President Trump chooses to reengage in it. NATO can expand its Resolute Support training and advising mission and its financial aid to Kabul, to stabilize Afghanistan’s government and army and reverse the Taliban’s recent gains.

Third, the Brussels summit would enable the Trump administration to spell out a clear foreign policy in the alliance’s strategic periphery. Concerning Russia, President Trump has yet to iterate a clear policy on sanctions, Ukraine, cyber tensions with Moscow and cooperation in Syria. This situation is even more worrying to allies in light of his recent behind-closed-doors negotiations with Moscow. In the Middle East, US needs to clarify its policy toward Libya and Syria, where the piecemeal American policy of fighting ISIS, striking the Assad regime and arming Kurdish forces has led to tensions in the strained US-Turkish relationship, without offering any long-term strategy. In the Balkans, where instability is growing in Macedonia and Bosnia under the shadow of Turkish and Russian influence, the Trump administration needs to prevent the region from relapsing into conflict and authoritarianism.

In short, at Brussels President Trump has the opportunity to bring clarity to his transatlantic policy, dispel fears, engage in dialogue, and restore a shared sense of direction to the alliance. Equally important, the administration has the opportunity to formulate a clear vision of its foreign policy and move from tensions with allies to tackling international challenges, such as North Korea and the geopolitics of China’s rise.

Of course, like any opportunity, this one can be missed or mishandled. This would not result in a dramatic crisis for the alliance, but would enhance the doubts about its future and increase transatlantic estrangement at a time of growing international instability. As a result, all NATO members, including the US, would lose.

Ivan Lidarev is Ph.D. student at the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London and former advisor at Bulgaria’s National Assembly. Picture Credit: CC by White House/Flickr.


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