Donald Trump never demanded that NATO leaders avoid discussing Russia during his meeting with the military alliance on Thursday.
He didn’t have to.
The alliance is so anxious about pleasing the US president that it tailored its first major meeting with him around topics that touch on his long-standing criticisms of the 28-member organization rather than the Kremlin’s latest provocations.
Russia, which dominated NATO’s previous two summits in Wales and Warsaw, will not be a formal agenda item for the alliance’s meeting in Brussels this week, North Atlantic Treaty Organization spokesperson Oana Lungescu told BuzzFeed News.
"The meeting will be short, and focused on two main topics: stepping up NATO’s role in the fight against terrorism, and fairer burden sharing,” Lungescu said.
"While we do not expect any new decisions on Russia, NATO allies will reconfirm our long-standing twin-track policy: strong defense combined with meaningful dialogue,” she added.
The lack of a focus on Russia is not because Moscow’s behavior has improved in the eyes of NATO. The Kremlin continues to meddle in European elections, back separatists in Eastern Ukraine, and support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia’s absence, European officials explained, is a tacit acknowledgment that the alliance’s most immediate crisis is currying the favor of the leader of the world’s most powerful military — a man who had previously called the organization outdated and “obsolete.”
“You’ve got to remember that Trump still hasn’t explicitly stated his support for Article 5,” said a European official, referring to a clause in the alliance’s charter that requires NATO members to come to the defense of an ally. “First things first.”
On Thursday, Trump will meet with leaders from across the 28-member alliance at NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels. After a ceremony commemorating NATO’s collective response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, leaders will engage in a two-hour working dinner where NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will steer the discussion toward two main topics: burden-sharing and counterterrorism, issues Trump brought up repeatedly on the campaign trail. NATO officials stressed that during the working dinner, leaders may bring up any issue they please, which could include Russia.
But it’s clear that NATO officials believe Trump’s previous remarks that “NATO doesn’t discuss terrorism” and that the alliance is “disproportionately” expensive must be addressed. Officials were particularly concerned after Trump’s first meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel when he said Berlin “owed vast sums,” which suggested that NATO members owe dues in a manner similar to the United Nations (they do not).
Even though Trump has since stated that NATO is “no longer obsolete” due to what he perceives as its renewed focus on terrorism, European officials still aren’t sure where Trump stands.
NATO officials contend that the alliance has long focused on terrorism, dating back to at least 2001, when it collectively took action in Afghanistan in response to 9/11, the only time Article 5 has been invoked in the alliance’s history.
Nevertheless, the job of pleasing Trump is so paramount that even Baltic countries, whose military planners are obsessed with deterring Russia, say that shelving the issue of Moscow is for the greater good of the alliance.
“It’s true. Russia is not a discussion topic for this meeting,” Saulius Gasiunas, a senior Lithuanian defense official, told BuzzFeed News. “But we’re not frustrated.”
Gita Leitlande, the defense counselor at the Latvian Embassy in Washington, DC, agreed. “We are absolutely content,” she said.
Gasiunas emphasized that the key thing NATO countries are looking for from the meeting is for Trump to explicitly endorse Article 5, something he hasn’t done. “This commitment is supposed to be delivered by the president himself at the meeting,” Gasiunas said. “This will finalize the issue and put an end to uncertainties and ambiguities.”
Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to NATO, told BuzzFeed News that some Eastern European countries have privately expressed frustration with the lack of focus on Russia. “The Poles and the Baltics wanted a meeting that would show continuity with Wales-Warsaw,” he said. “That has already made some people unhappy. But NATO had to get with it,” he said.
To some extent, the NATO meeting’s focus on burden-sharing helps Trump argue that his tough line with the organization has already succeeded in changing its priorities. But it’s unclear if he’ll come away with a firm deliverable.
Only five members of the 28-nation club spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense, the amount NATO recommends each nation set aside. In 2015, Washington accounted for more than 72% of NATO members’ total defense expenditures -- about $649.9 billion. The other 27 NATO members combined to spend less than 28%, or about $251 billion.
In 2014, NATO members had already made a commitment to reaching NATO’s 2% goal — so a recommitment to that figure won’t strike many as an impressive deliverable for Trump. However, Ian Lesser, a vice president at the German Marshall Fund, said Trump’s complaints about burden-sharing may result in allies offering more detailed “national action plans” for making good on the 2% spending level. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more commitments to put in place measurable national plans, and Trump may rightly claim that as a victory,” he said.
But even if those commitments turn out to be little more than words on paper, at least Trump is getting NATO’s secretary general to embrace his agenda, albeit with a few awkward hiccups.
Reports surfaced in recent days that Stoltenberg told NATO leaders to shorten their speeches in order to accommodate Trump’s short attention span — a fact that prompted a wave of snickering at Trump’s expense. “The president of the United States has a 12-second attention span,” Stoltenberg reportedly said, according to Politico. Stoltenberg’s spokesperson denied he ever made such statements. “Stop spreading this false quote,” Lungescu tweeted. “Stoltenberg did not say this, nor does it represent his views. Check your facts.”
NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu's first name was misspelled in a previous version of this post.
John Hudson is a foreign affairs reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact John Hudson at email@example.com.
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