USA Foreign Policy First Look

Trump, vocal NATO critic, commits to bloc's upcoming summit

President Trump’s agreement to attend the May gathering of NATO leaders – after describing the organization as ‘obsolete’ – comes at a time when some blame uncertainty over his attitude toward Russia for a recent spike in Ukraine’s conflict.

Kosovo president Hashim Thaci (c., l.) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg walk in the main square of Kosovo's capital Pristina on Friday, Jan. 3, 2017. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has joined the international community calling on Kosovo and Serbia to normalize their ties.
Visar Kryeziu/ AP
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President Trump is to meet NATO leaders in May at a meeting in Europe, the latest move in the uncertain relationship between the new leader of the United States and European partners.

The announcement came after a phone call Sunday evening between Mr. Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in which they discussed defense spending by NATO members and the recent uptick of violence in Ukraine, according to a statement from the White House.

NATO allies have been particularly keen to understand how Trump would approach the alliance since his comment, shortly before his inauguration, that the organization is "obsolete."

"Number one it was obsolete, because it was, you know, designed many, many years ago," Trump told The Times of London and German newspaper Bild on Jan. 16. "Number two – the countries aren’t paying what they’re supposed to pay."

In the same interview, Trump praised Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, predicted further nations would follow suit, and expressed indifference from the point of view of the United States as to whether the EU survived or not.

For some commentators, European leaders' shock at Trump's views is itself surprising.

"If the Europeans are shocked and horrified at what Trump’s saying, all it tells me is that they are terrible analysts who simply refuse to see what's going on," John Hulsman, a transatlantic affairs expert who heads his own global risk consulting firm in Germany, told The Christian Science Monitor after the president's remarks in January.

"The European elites for whom Europe is a religion thought that Trump the president would adopt the faith and drop the heretical views of Trump the candidate," said Mr. Hulsman, "so it’s a shock to them that he means what he says."

Perhaps of most immediate concern, at least to those NATO members on Europe’s eastern flank, is the attitude of Washington’s new administration toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the country's increasing assertiveness in recent years.

After Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and alleged involvement in stirring up the three-year conflict in eastern Ukraine, some – not least the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – wonder how secure their own borders remain. Membership in NATO had always appeared to offer cast-iron security guarantees, but Trump’s comments on the organization have stoked concern.

In a Feb. 5 appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, Trump responded to conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly's description of Russian President Vladimir Putin as "a killer" by saying, "We have got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?"

The president’s comments reflect an attitude toward Russia that some observers feel is too conciliatory, even permissive. In Ukraine, where conflict between government forces and separatist rebels has surged in recent weeks, both sides have suggested that uncertainty over Trump's stance on Russia is to blame, with the Kremlin perhaps testing the waters of the new administration. The latest spike in violence, which killed more than 40 people over the past week, came on the heels of a phone call between Trump and President Putin.

"There is a fear [in Kiev] that Russia and the US might come to some sort of agreement behind Ukraine's back," Vadim Karasyov, the director of the independent Institute for Global Strategies in Kiev, told the Monitor’s Fred Weir. "There is still hope that we can fulfill the Minsk II accord [which outlined a path toward peace], but much will depend on the position the US is going to take."

So, what will Trump have to say to other NATO leaders in May – or indeed in the meantime? While it may be impossible to predict, some analysts believe it is in the Europeans’ hands to determine the future trajectory of the relationship.

"If they do the right things," Hulsman told the Monitor last month, "take actions like meeting the 2 percent NATO commitment or if the EU proves itself to be a viable partner of the US on key issues, then the doubts about NATO and the EU will go away. If they do the practical stuff, they’ll find the Americans even with a President Trump are ready to work with them, so it’s up to them."

This report includes material from Reuters.

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