- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 1, 2019

The American president will be banging the drum for more money. The French president recently called the alliance brain-dead, angering the German chancellor. The British hosts appear impatient for the whole thing to be over. And everyone is mad at the Turks.

Existential crises are nothing new for NATO, but President Trump and the military alliance’s other leaders appear to be at a particularly tricky crossroads at what was supposed to be NATO’s celebratory 70th anniversary party this week in London.

The gathering, already downgraded from a “summit” to a “leaders’ meeting,” will be held in the wake of a number of shocks to the system, including Mr. Trump’s October announcement of a U.S. pullout in Syria without informing his European allies and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s defiant decision to buy a Russian missile defense system that other NATO powers fear could undercut the alliance’s defensive cohesion.

Doubts about Washington’s commitment to the 29-nation alliance helped spur French President Emmanuel Macron’s warning that NATO was suffering “brain death” and that European powers would have to rely more on themselves for their own defense.

Host Britain appears far more preoccupied with whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson will win the country’s general election Dec. 12 — and whether Mr. Trump will do anything while in the U.K. to help or hurt his chances.

“The upcoming celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary will be marked by important divisions within the alliance — not just across the Atlantic, but also within Europe,” Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Voice of America last week.

Challenges are expected when the leaders sit down for discussions at the luxurious Grove Hotel in Hertfordshire. Mr. Trump complains that the U.S. is routinely expected to pick up the tab from other NATO members and has even mused about pulling out of the alliance altogether.

NATO officials are putting the best face possible on the gathering and say Mr. Trump’s complaints about the low level of defense spending by Germany and other top allies are having a real impact.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the “unprecedented progress” in defense spending — nine NATO countries now meet the target for defense spending — was a sign that the alliance was adapting to a new world of threats.

“NATO is changing because the world is changing,” Mr. Stoltenberg told the BBC last week.

Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach is chairman of NATO’s military committee, a kind of alliance board of directors. He called himself “the only elected military officer in the world” because he was chosen for the position by the senior military officials in each of the member countries.

He said angst over NATO’s mission and future is nothing new.

“Throughout the history of the alliance — over seven decades — there have been disagreements. That is no different than today,” he said. “We continue to work together with all of our allies.”

Trump on the offensive

Mr. Trump will continue his pressure campaign on European allies to spend more on defense and repel China’s “cheap money” this week, senior administration officials said in briefings ahead of the two-day meeting.

Administration officials also expect Mr. Erdogan to get an earful from NATO partners for purchasing an air defense system from Russia, though the authoritarian Turkish leader seems less concerned these days about outside criticism.

Mr. Trump, who departs Monday, tends to cause irritation at these types of summits, and much the pre-meeting planning appeared designed to head off American anger.

U.S. officials contend Mr. Trump has been “spectacularly successful” in getting NATO allies to spend more for the common defense. Nine allies are now spending that share — compared with four in 2016 — and administration officials expect at least 18 countries to hit the mark by 2024.

One factor that may drive the NATO allies closer is a resurgent Russia, whose aggressive moves in Ukraine, Syria and across Eastern Europe have been a galvanizing force for the alliance members.

“There’s actually a good story to tell about NATO’s adaptation since 2014, when we witnessed Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea,” said Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. “NATO has come a long way and made tremendous strides in its defense and deterrence capabilities.”

Edward Ferguson calls himself a “child of NATO” and said he followed his father, a British Army officer, to posts throughout Europe.

“The commitment to Europe and European security runs deep in my veins,” said Mr. Ferguson, the minister-counselor for defense at the British Embassy in Washington.

He called NATO an alliance “that turned Europe from the birthplace of world wars to a real beacon of peace, stability and prosperity.”

Wake-up call

In the five years since Russia’s Crimea annexation, NATO has implemented the most widespread reinforcement of collective deterrence and defense in a generation, supporters say. Allied air patrols have increased across Europe, and new battle groups have been deployed to the Baltic nations and Poland. NATO officials also modernized the command structure of the alliance.

Most recently, the commander of the U.S. Navy’s 2nd Fleet was designated as head of NATO’s newly created Joint Force Command in Norfolk, Virginia, and will report directly to the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe.

“The threats keep changing, and NATO has to keep changing with them,” Mr. Ferguson said. “We are stronger as an alliance, [and] our people are safer within an alliance.”

Writing for a British think tank called the Royal United Services Institute, a former French admiral said the reaction to Mr. Macron’s “brain death” comment was overblown. He said the French president’s comments in an interview with The Economist magazine were instead meant as “a wake-up call.”

“It is worrisome that strategic thinking seems frozen in the minds of some experts. They seem reluctant to fully consider the fundamental changes the world is experiencing,” said retired Vice Adm. Patrick Chevallereau.

He said Mr. Macron’s comments about NATO “harm nothing but the certainties and the comfort of strategic thinking that is disconnected from the realities of the modern world.”

As for Turkey, Chief Marshal Peach said Ankara has “legitimate security concerns” and the Turkish military remains one of the strongest forces in the alliance after the U.S.

“Military-to-military relations with Turkey remain extremely strong, and they are very important,” Chief Marshal Peach said.

A bounty of bilaterals

Mr. Trump will kick off his London trip with a working breakfast with Mr. Stoltenberg and then a bilateral meeting with Mr. Macron. Later, he will participate in a reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II.

The following day, Mr. Trump will have a bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and meet collectively with representatives from the U.K., Baltic states and nations across central and Eastern Europe.

He will also meet with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, with whom he sparred over Greenland this year. Senior administration officials said Mr. Trump does not plan to meet with Mr. Erdogan because the pair spoke at the White House last month.

Notably missing from Mr. Trump’s three-day itinerary is a confirmed bilateral meeting with Mr. Johnson, although the White House late Saturday said Mr. Trump offered sympathies over a terrorist knife attack on London Bridge and “looks forward to meeting” with the prime minister in London.

Senior administration officials said Mr. Trump likes Mr. Johnson personally and that his schedule remains fluid, so a formal meeting isn’t off the table.

Some in Britain fear the loquacious U.S. president will try to put his thumb on the scale ahead of the high-stakes Dec. 12 vote. Earlier this year, Mr. Trump raised eyebrows by openly criticizing then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s handling of Brexit. He also has heavily criticized Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn of late.

Senior administration officials brushed off fears that Mr. Trump — a rhetorical pugilist and avid pundit in chief — would overstep during his London stay. They say he is conscious “of the fact that we do not interfere.”

“He is absolutely cognizant of not, again, wading into other countries’ elections,” a senior administration official said.

Left unsaid was the fact that polls show Mr. Trump is deeply unpopular with the U.K. electorate, and a meeting with the American president might not be in Mr. Johnson’s political interest.

The leftist Mr. Corbyn was on the attack over the weekend, hitting Mr. Johnson’s ties to Mr. Trump.

“Britain must make its own foreign policy, free from a knee-jerk subservience to a U.S. administration which repudiates our values,” Mr. Corbyn said. “Under Labor, Britain will have its own voice in the world, standing tall for security, peace and justice. That’s the path to real security.”

China, which has invested heavily in a number of central and Eastern European states and hopes to play a big role in building Europe’s coming 5G telecommunications networks, could also prove a point of division in the talks Tuesday and Wednesday.

U.S. officials warn that Beijing’s “cheap investments” in European ports and electricity grids serve as a way to “trap” countries into its orbit and wring diplomatic and trade concessions.

Mr. Trump will also call on NATO allies to resist Chinese-owned Huawei and use other providers in its 5G cellular networks.

“This has been a major push of ours,” a senior administration official said. “This is not something where [allies] want to allow the Chinese Communist Party to siphon off their data.”

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