Donald Trump's first NATO gathering poses a number of questions. (Credit: Julius Kielaitis/Bigstock)
Donald Trump's first NATO gathering poses a number of questions. (Credit: Julius Kielaitis/Bigstock) (via: bit.ly)

On 25 May 2017, new the NATO headquarters in Brussels will host a summit that may become one of the most significant in the organisation’s history. The 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, will take his first trip overseas as commander-in-chief to attend the summit with leaders from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries.

“The President looks forward to the meeting with his NATO counterparts to reaffirm our strong commitment to NATO, and to discuss issues critical to the alliance, especially allied responsibility-sharing and NATO’s role in the fight against terrorism”, – stated representatives from the White House.

Following the results of a phone call with President Trump in early February, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed that the agenda of the forthcoming summit will concentrate on progress in the fight against terrorism, defence spending among all NATO allies, prospects for a peaceful settlement in Ukraine, and on dialogue with Russia.

In advance of the summit, on 31 March 2017, the meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs took place at the Brussels headquarters. The issues that were discussed at the ministerial meeting will also be the main priority on the summit’s agenda.

First of all, the US administration made it clear that one of the main focuses of the summit will be reforming US-European relations and finding balance within NATO. The topic most ripe for discussion in this dimension is an increase in defence spending by European allies, who should guarantee (according to Donald Trump’s expectations) their obligations by reaching the defence spending level of at least 2% of GDP. Jens Stoltenberg pointed out that the United Kingdom, Poland, Greece, Estonia, and the US have already met this criterion and that Romania, Lithuania, and Latvia have declared they plan to reach the target in the near future.

Projecting stability and strengthening security outside NATO through cooperation and partnerships (indicated in documents following the Warsaw summit in 2016) will obviously be discussed in the context of the new US vision of the international and Euro-Atlantic agenda – the fight against terrorism should become a priority in NATO activities.

However, it is still unclear what the US administration could suggest for NATO in implementing its plans in the field of fighting terrorism. The Alliance made a significant contribution to activities in Afghanistan, it trains security officers in Iraq, and provides AWACS aircraft for operations in Iraq. This is what NATO has already been doing. President Trump’s idea is that the Alliance should do more, and reorient and dedicate itself fully to the fight against international terrorism. If so, the organisation should develop programmatic tasks in this key priority sphere, which will require material and operational support. Still, at the moment NATO’s abilities are limited.

Cooperation with Russia

Here arise the following questions, which are to be addressed at the summit on 25 May: is it possible to conduct pragmatic cooperation with Russia in terms of the fight against international terrorism, and if so, upon what conditions? Are there any practical opportunities and is there any political potential for this cooperation? And will it be necessary to change NATO’s policy of restraining Russia in order to achieve common goals? Europe is pretty concerned about whether or not President Trump is preparing a separate deal on Syria with Russia that could destroy fundamental values of NATO cooperation.

Political dialogue between Russia and the Alliance will in fact be one of the core issues on the summit’s agenda. On 30 March 2017, the day before the meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs, the NATO-Russia Council was held in Brussels, at the ambassadorial level, where the parties discussed their disagreements on the crisis in and around Ukraine, the challenging security situation in Afghanistan, and addressed military activities. Although NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg characterised the NATO-Russia Council meeting as “frank and constructive”, it is of crucial importance not only to maintain dialogue, but also to establish practical cooperation in order to achieve visible results. Dialogue for the sake of dialogue is important as a mechanism of deterrent to confrontation, but it cannot be considered a strategy for overcoming an acute crisis.

Diplomatic Language

Finally, it is worth paying attention to one interesting observation: the meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs was postponed because for quite a while the United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was unable to confirm his participation due to changes in his schedule. As a result, all European ministers had to change their plans as well in order to have a chance to meet with him. The final date of the NATO summit in May was also not defined for a long time, again in anticipation of the updated schedule of President Trump’s European tour. It is obvious that Donald Trump is willing to become a fully-fledged successor to the White House’s European assets. In diplomatic language, these circumstances should be perceived around the world as US intentions to demonstrate who, so to speak, calls the tune.