The NATO alliance is in a state of high tension heading into the Brussels summit next week.
In some ways, of course, we have been here before. When I served as NATO’s supreme allied commander from 2009 to 2013, we had controversy and disagreements aplenty over Afghanistan and Libya, for example, and endless arguments over equitable burden-sharing between the U.S. and the other allies. Indeed, reports on the decline of NATO have been constant over the decades, especially immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
What is different now, however, is the obvious personal antipathy of the U.S. president toward the alliance in general and some of the key leaders in particular. Donald Trump’s open dislike of Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s Theresa May and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, for example, feels deeply rooted and intractable. (While there was a flash of affection toward President Emanuel Macron of France during an April visit to Washington, that relationship has cooled considerably since.)
This personal animosity between the alliance’s most important national leaders comes at an especially infelicitous time, with Vladimir Putin’s Russia applying pressure around NATO’s periphery, using “hybrid warfare” techniques to destabilize the Baltic and Black Sea nations, and employing cyber operations to undermine democracy as far away as the U.S.
The fear is that Trump will conduct another slash-and-burn mission at the NATO summit, then follow it up with a warm and chatty engagement with Putin a few days later in Helsinki. This would follow the pattern he established several weeks ago when he trashed the G-7 gathering in Canada and then all but hugged North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
A second round of such behavior will solidify the view in Europe that the president is irredeemable as a reliable partner, leading to one of the deepest crises in the alliance’s 70-year existence.
What makes it particularly hurtful is the evident personal affection and admiration Trump has for Putin. This seems inexplicable given the Russian leader’s support for the war criminal Bashar al-Assad in Syria, his illegal invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, and above all the Russian intrusion into the U.S. political process in 2016 and since - which Trump refuses to recognize.
While it is in no one’s interest to stumble backward into a Cold War, the huge political disconnect between Trump’s dislike of NATO’s democratic leaders and his frequently expressed admiration for the authoritarian Putin is an enormous discontinuity for the alliance.
America’s partners are particularly concerned about a surprise Trump giveaway during his meeting with Putin: announcing a withdrawal of significant Americans troops from Europe, cutting defense funds to U.S. European Command, or stopping exercises with NATO’s easternmost members, which Russia protests as “provocative.” And given the script he is executing with North Korea - including a pause on military exercises with South Korea that apparently blindsided not only Seoul but also Secretary of Defense James Mattis - these fears would appear very justified.
Ironically, all this is happening as the push to increase defense spending on the part of the Europeans and Canada, begun during the Obama administration, is actually working. Most of the non-U.S. NATO members are moving closer to the entirely reasonable goals of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense and 20 percent of that on modern equipment. But it cannot go fast enough to satisfy Donald Trump, and his anger and petulance will probably increase.
What this summit should be about is a handful of difficult strategic and tactical challenges facing the alliance. These include the seemingly endless mission in Afghanistan (about 25,000 NATO troops remain there, 15,000 of them from the U.S.); protecting the alliance members in the Baltics from Russian cyberattacks; a plan for approaching the rapidly opening Arctic Ocean (five NATO allies have significant coastlines threatened by an increasingly activist Moscow); and NATO’s role in the Middle East, especially the continuing fight against terrorists.
Instead, we can look forward to Trump continuing his uninformed commentary about nations failing to “pay their dues” - as if NATO was one of his country clubs - and musing about whether the U.S. should even stay in the alliance. (After being told recently that Sweden not a member, he reportedly commented that perhaps the best thing for the U.S. would be the “deal” that Sweden has of picking and choosing which operations to join.) This would a waste of rare face time between the world leaders, especially with vastly more important issues to address.
One hopes that Mattis - who served as a 4-star NATO commander while on active duty - can drive a sensible level of discourse on the key topics. What the U.S. should be pushing for is straightforward: ongoing commitment of trainers and funding in Afghanistan, where the key will be forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table; increasing cyber resources for both defensive and offensive activities; establishing a greater level of formal NATO participation in the fight against the Islamic State; generating a coherent surveillance and operational plan for the Arctic; and - above all - synchronizing NATO responses to ongoing Russian aggression around the border of the alliance.
Defense spending by our allies is certainly worthy of discussion - as it has been for years. But if that is the end of the conversation, the Brussels summit will be a missed opportunity for the U.S. and the democratic world.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.