America’s self-proclaimed deal maker, facing a political maelstrom and credibility gap back home, could not afford to walk away from his first trip abroad without something to show for it. And the Europeans, concerned that the United States is spiraling out of control, had to find a way to ensure that Washington remains moored in an alliance that has bound both sides of the Atlantic together for nearly 70 years.
So the wary allies tried to cut a deal that, at least on the surface, would be a win-win for everyone involved, allowing both sides to walk away from the NATO summit in Brussels claiming that they gained more than they gave away.
The French and the Germans dropped their opposition to NATO formally joining the military coalition that is fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. And the European allies also agreed to present annual national plans demonstrating their progress toward NATO’s defense spending targets.
With that, President Donald Trump can return to Washington claiming he pressured the Europeans to step up the fight against terrorism and to increase their contributions to an alliance that Mr. Trump once slammed as “obsolete.”
The Europeans' decision to back NATO participation in the coalition against Islamic State is largely a symbolic gesture to appease Mr. Trump.
The Europeans, in turn, expected Mr. Trump to finally reaffirm America’s commitment to NATO’s mutual defense clause, which he questioned during the US presidential campaign. In a July 2016 interview with the New York Times, Mr. Trump suggested that the United States would make its commitment to European allies contingent on whether or not they met defense spending targets.
“Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying for their defense,” Mr. Trump said surrounded by European leaders on Thursday. “This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States, and many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years,” he added.
By the end of his speech, it was clear that the US president had left the NATO allies hanging. Though Mr. Trump said the United States would “never forsake the friends that stood by our side” in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, he did not outright endorse NATO’s mutual defense clause. Ironically, the only time NATO has invoked Article 5 is to come to the aid of the United States after 9/11.
In reality, the Europeans did not give that much to Mr. Trump either; or at least Chancellor Angela Merkel does not think so. Ms. Merkel said NATO’s participation in the coalition against the Islamic State group is a “strong signal, but it is clear that there will be no new contributions by Germany beyond what we are already doing.” Berlin is currently flying reconnaissance missions over Syria and Iraq for coalition warplanes and is training and helping to arm Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq.
Indeed, the Europeans’ decision to back NATO participation in the coalition against Islamic State is largely a symbolic gesture to appease Mr. Trump. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made clear the alliance would help with coordination, but would not have a combat mission. All 28 NATO member states are already part of the coalition against Islamic State. The French and the Germans had originally opposed NATO participation out of concern that it would alienate Middle Eastern allies.
On the issue of NATO defense spending, one of Mr. Trump’s biggest pet peeves, Ms. Merkel said the Europeans had simply reaffirmed the goal to spend 2 percent of national economic output on defense by 2024: “Reaffirm means no more and no less,” the chancellor said. Mr. Trump, for his part, said 2 percent represents the bare minimum that the allies should spend on defense. Ms. Merkel, on the other hand, emphasized the move by NATO to judge member states not just by how much they spend, but also on the substance of their contributions. “I believe Germany can be proud [of its contributions], and I will make that clear here,” she said.
Ms. Merkel is walking a difficult political line back home on the issue, where she hopes to get re-elected for a fourth term in September. She supports increased defense spending and Germany has in fact boosted military expenditures under her leadership, though at 1.2 percent of economic output, Berlin still falls far short of the goal set by NATO. The challenge for Ms. Merkel is that she cannot appear to compromise too much with Mr. Trump – both military spending and the US president are deeply unpopular in Germany.
Indeed, the chancellor’s political opponents, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), are waiting to pounce on Ms. Merkel if she makes a misstep: “We expect the chancellor not to give in to President Trump’s demands,” Rolf Mützenich, the Social Democrats’ foreign policy expert, told the weekly Welt am Sonntag.
Mr. Trump said: "The Germans are bad, very bad. See the millions of cars they are selling in the US, terrible. We will stop this."
Though security was the focus of Thursday’s meeting in Brussels, Mr. Trump reportedly had some choice words for Germany behind closed doors. In a conversation with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the US president again slammed Berlin for its trade surplus with the United States, according to newsmagazine Der Spiegel, citing sources privy to the conversation.
Mr. Trump said: “The Germans are bad, very bad. See the millions of cars they are selling in the US, terrible. We will stop this.”
Mr. Juncker reportedly defended Berlin and told the US president that free trade benefits everyone.
The daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, citing participants in the summit, also reported that Mr. Trump complained repeatedly about Germany’s trade surplus. In January, Mr. Trump told the Times of London that the European Union is just a vehicle for Germany. His top trade advisor, Peter Navarro, has said Germany is using an undervalued euro to exploit trade partners such as the United States, a charge Berlin and EU officials have vehemently rejected.
There was no progress with Mr. Trump on trade during the summit in Brussels, sources told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The US president did agree to a proposal, made by Mr. Juncker, to create an action plan on trade to explore possible areas of cooperation. But there’s no expectation at this time that Brussels and Washington will revive the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, the sources said.
Ms. Merkel, however, continues to push for the TTIP. During her trip to Washington in March, she lobbied Mr. Trump to resume transatlantic trade talks. But German Economics Minister Brigitte Zypries, who was in Washington this week, threw cold water on the chancellor’s efforts.
“It is not likely the US will resume negotiations over TTIP,” Ms. Zypries, a center-left Social Democrat, told Handelsblatt. “We will not make the topic a focus of our discussions. There are more pressing issues with the United States.”
Spencer Kimball is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in the United States. Till Hoppe reports on politics for Handelsblatt, with a focus on defense, domestic policy and cyber issues. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org