Transatlantic Take

Trump, NATO Leaders Converge in London: What to Watch

Karen Donfried Michal Baranowski Ian Lesser
Martin Quencez
Derek Chollet
Markus Kaim
Julie Smith
Jan Techau
12 min read
Photo Credits: Gints Ivuskans/
Next week, President Trump will join Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Boris Johnson, and other NATO heads of state for a meeting to commemorate the alliance’s 70th anniversary.

Next week, President Trump will join Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Boris Johnson, and other NATO heads of state for a meeting to commemorate the alliance’s 70th anniversary. A group of leaders with diverging views on security and their respective roles in the world will have to confront a serious slate of issues – despite the growing rifts.

Ahead of the Summit, GMF experts are weighing in on various aspects of the meetings with perspectives from Washington, Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, and Brussels.

An Uneasy Celebration Marked by Division

The celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary will be marked by important divisions within the alliance—not just across the Atlantic, but also within Europe. The European perspectives reflect different reactions to developments in the United States.

In Paris, the talk is all about strategic autonomy. President Donald Trump’s antipathy toward NATO has led many in France to conclude that the U.S. security guarantee can no longer be relied on. President Emmanuel Macron articulated this view when he described the “brain death” of NATO. Though the French admit that they are miles from strategic autonomy, they are its most ardent evangelists.

In Berlin, the focus is on strategic patience. Germans see the change in the United States to a transactional approach as cyclical rather than structural (and thus not representing a fundamental turning away from the alliance as an enduring commitment). Trump’s eventual successor, they believe, will return to a more traditional view of transatlantic relations. In Warsaw, the buzz words are a strategic embrace. The Poles see a big, bad neighbor to their east: Russia. In their eyes, there is no substitute for the U.S. security guarantee, and they are not convinced that their European allies will defend them if push comes to shove.

Against this backdrop, allies are approaching the London summit with a sense of foreboding. Few anticipate a gathering that will both unify and stop the growing cracks in cohesion. Alliance leaders carry the responsibility to articulate NATO’s common purpose and ongoing relevance. If they ’do not, Vladimir Putin will be raising a glass in Moscow to the fraught state of the alliance at 70.

— Karen Donfried, President, Washington


Translating Disruption into a More Positive Debate

Following President Emmanuel Macron’s interview in The Economist, France will aim to make of the powerful reactions it triggered an opportunity for an honest discussion among allies about strategic and political coordination within NATO. As Macron considers complacency to be the most pressing danger facing Europe and European security, he is likely to reaffirm his comments and to continue to push for all allies to clarify their position in this debate.

As far as he is concerned, the message will remain the same: France has consistently acknowledged the work done within NATO to strengthen transatlantic military planning and interoperability, but it refuses to shy away from the crisis experienced at the strategic level of cooperation. In this context, it is also up to France to show that ’Macron’s disruptive method can foster constructive reforms, and that his harsh criticism can be followed by a more positive agenda for the transatlantic partnership. This will notably require reaffirming Paris’ commitments to NATO initiatives in the east and to the security interests of Central and Eastern European allies. It will also require clarifying the position of the Trump administration: although Macron declared that he had a very positive exchange with the U.S. president, Washington has yet to officially respond in this debate.

— Martin Quencez, Deputy Director, Paris Office and Research Fellow in the Security & Defense Program


For Trump in London, Echoes of Nixon and Low Expectations

Donald Trump is not the first U.S. president to attend a NATO confab under the cloud of impeachment. In June 1974, as the House Judiciary Committee raced to conclude its inquiry, Richard Nixon flew to Brussels to attend a summit commemorating NATO’s 25th anniversary. With Washington mired in Watergate, Nixon wanted to remind everyone that he was still the leader of the free world. He tried hard to project normalcy by comfortably hobnobbing with fellow leaders and signing a declaration to revitalize the alliance. But everyone understood Nixon’s reckoning was near—and just a few weeks later he departed the White House for good.  

When Trump lands in London for the meeting to mark NATO’s 70th anniversary, he will do so with the confidence he will likely survive Nixon’s fate. Nevertheless, as Congress debates his future, Trump will still have extra incentive to show that he is in command. While Nixon remained determined to rise above the swirl of impeachment and to pretend he was not distracted, Trump ’cannot help himself. Moreover, for him, being in charge hardly means projecting steady confidence—it means proving that he can keep everyone off-balance and nervous about what is coming next. Combine this with the temptation he will feel to pop-off on the United Kingdom’s elections, or the 2020 presidential campaign, or anything else in his grab bag of assorted conspiracies and grievances—it is hard to see anything constructive coming out of this meeting.

That is bad news. The good news is that expectations are about as low as they can get. If the meeting concludes without a major blowup, everyone should breathe a sigh of relief and consider it a win. The slogan for this meeting is simple: survive and advance. That is surely not the level of ambition NATO officials had in mind when they decided to gather in London, but it is the best we can hope for.

— Derek Chollet, Executive Vice President and Senior Advisor for Security and Defense Policy, Washington


Germany Finds Itself Between Trump and Macron

The government of Chancellor Angela Merkel looks ahead with concern to the meeting of NATO heads of state and government in London. The representatives of Germany remember too vividly the summit meeting in Brussels last year, when President Donald Trump loudly criticized the European allies for their too-low defense expenditures and attacked Germany especially because of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Under all circumstances, the German government is trying to prevent a repetition of such a situation.

The tight schedule serves this purpose—only one working session is planned, which is supposed to provide little room for controversy. Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has also made a name for herself over the last few weeks as a faithful transatlanticist: she has rejected the French goal of a strategic autonomy for Europe at the expense of NATO, defended the importance of the alliance against the President Emmanuel Macron’s criticism, and confirmed that Germany will reach the 2 percent goal for defense spending, even if only by 2031. All other topics will, therefore, recede behind Germany’s goal to present itself as a loyal and reliable member of the alliance. In the long run, however, one central fear remains for Berlin: that the political cohesion of the alliance will be further eroded and that joint military action will be called into question. One of the two cornerstones of German foreign policy since 1949—alongside European integration—would thus be shaken. Against this background, worried glances from Berlin are directed toward the U.S. presidential elections next year.

— Markus Kaim, Helmut Schmidt Fellow of the Zeit-Stiftung and GMF, Washington/Berlin


Macron Pushes Berlin and Warsaw Closer Together

The already infamous assessment by President Emmanuel Macron that NATO is "brain dead" sparked fierce debate not only about the alliance but more broadly about European security and the United States' role in it. It also made clear how out of step France is with its European allies. From Germany to Poland to Brussels, key voices have since reaffirmed the centrality of NATO and criticized Macron’s assessment as not only disruptive but also as damaging.

On the other hand, the productive debate that Macron’s interview in The Economist sparked is about what responsibility Europeans can and should take for their own defense. The emerging consensus across Warsaw, Berlin, and Paris are that Europe should do more, that it needs greater capabilities, and the ability to act. Where some Europeans disagree, though, is on the role the United States will be willing and able to play in European security given the rise of its strategic competitor in Asia.

France under President Macron seems to be saying that the United States is already an unreliable ally, and therefore that it is time for Europe to go in the direction of strategic autonomy. That calculation seems to miss the reality that replacing U.S. military capabilities in Europe alone would cost €350 billion. This, pushes Germany and Poland closer together, as they see NATO clearly at the center of European security, even if they somewhat disagree on the long-term trajectory of the United States as a European power. But where all three countries agree is that Europe needs greater military capabilities.

Let us hope that this consensus becomes the message from the London summit, rather than rhetoric about America first or Europe alone.

— Michal Baranowski, Director, Warsaw Office


The Allies Confront the “China Review”

When NATO foreign ministers gathered in Washington this past April, they agreed that the alliance would undertake a “China Review.” The premise behind this was simple: given that China has become increasing active across the European continent, it was time to begin a conversation about NATO’s vulnerabilities and potential challenges as they relate to China. But not every ally was enthusiastic about the review, which is why it has not been terribly ambitious. NATO leaders meeting in London will be briefed on the results. They should keep expectations low. The review will likely encourage NATO members to fortify their networks against actors like Huawei and engage China where possible.

That should not be the end of the story. NATO leaders should task the alliance to tackle several additional questions. What are the implications of China’s recent port acquisitions across Europe? If China now owns 10 percent of the ports in Europe, what happens when the share is 25 percent? How worried should the alliance be about China’s ever-closer relationship with Russia, including in the military sphere? How will China’s huge investments in artificial intelligence affect NATO’s technological edge? Should NATO be watching China’s actions more closely in the Arctic? How should NATO doctrine change vis-à-vis China? NATO does not have to become overly alarmist about China but it does need to understand the associated risks and potential scenarios as the country becomes a much more active player in Europe.

— Julie Smith, Senior Advisor to the President and Director of the Asia Program and the Geopolitics Program, Washington


Turkey Adds to a Troubled NATO Debate

U.S. leadership—or the lack of it—may be at the core of a contentious NATO debate heading into the London leaders’ meeting. But Turkey’s widely criticized intervention in Syria has triggered a political storm of its own in alliance circles. The country has the second-largest military establishment in NATO and should be a key partner in transatlantic strategy toward Syria, Russia, Iran, and other risks. Turkey’s relations with most European allies are deeply troubled, and relations with the United States are at a point of near collapse over a range of issues. It increasingly doubts the credibility of the NATO security guarantee in contingencies on its borders and has pursued closer ties with Russia, including the purchase of the S-400 air defense system. This, coupled with the Turkish action in Syria and a separate dispute with the EU over energy exploration in the waters off Cyprus, has exposed Turkey to arms embargoes and other sanctions from NATO allies. Some within the alliance also wonder how Turkey fits in an alliance of shared values. Mutual suspicion runs deep. Turkey is most unlikely to leave NATO—membership still gives it a valuable seat at the transatlantic table—but the symptoms of an increasingly contentious relationship could be on full display in London.

— Ian Lesser, Vice President, and Executive Director, Brussels Office


The Capability Question

NATO has demonstrated “brain-power” by adapting relatively quickly to the changing security landscape. If little more than five years ago it was principally preoccupied with tracking down al Qaeda offshoots in Afghan mountains, today the alliance is now effectively deterring Russia in the east, projecting stability in the south, and building resilience in new frontiers such as cyber and space.

The challenge of this 360-degree strategy will not only be in mission multi-tasking but also in being able to apply a far broader spectrum of capabilities—from big-platform, visible presence to intelligence-driven, cyber-assisted, special forces, and networked interventions. For European countries, it also means that in the short to medium term they will need to continue to rely on the United States to provide those elements that convert Europe’s disparate military forces into effective deterrence and readiness (the immediate response brigades, the logistical and strategic enablers, the pre-positioned equipment, and the command-and-control and intelligence-and-surveillance platforms). Europe’s recent push for strategic autonomy is, therefore, no luxury, and initiatives such as Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defense Fund are already an essential ingredient to close the capabilities gap inside NATO. European autonomy, however, should not translate into less transatlantic defense cooperation. The integration and upgrade of Europe’s defense capabilities will still take time to achieve. Before that goal is reached, NATO and the transatlantic partnership remain the best grantors for European security. 

— Bruno Lete, Senior Fellow of Security and Defense, Brussels


Beware of False Narratives

Following the London summit, two false debates about NATO will dominate the discussion about European security in 2020. Their starting point will be the general distrust in the reliability of the United States’ security guarantee for its European allies. This distrust continues to send seismic shivers through Europe. But instead of doing what is needed, allies will most likely get bogged down in misleading narratives.

The first one will come out of Washington. It is almost certain that President Donald Trump will pull the NATO rabbit out of his hat again, particularly if he deems it politically advantageous. NATO will once more be portrayed as a collection of parasitic weaklings who enjoy freedom at the United States’ expense. This will remain as untrue as it always has been, but it will continue to matter greatly because so much depends on whether the U.S. commander-in-chief can credibly reassure allies and deter foes.

The second false debate will emerge from France’s President Emmanuel Macron’s recent bout of friendly fire directed at NATO. A French president can perhaps call NATO “brain dead” without making too many people nervous. What will make people nervous is when he decides that a completely new security architecture must be built in Europe that includes a revisionist Russia ruled by Vladimir Putin.

Then what is it that the NATO debate actually needs? The high-level study group on the future of NATO (commencing in 2020) should cut the nonsense and look at old European strategic realities and new ones around the globe to chart a coherent path forward. While a blending of new and old is not always easy to grasp and discuss publicly, that does not mean that NATO is “brain dead.” One thing is obvious: taking the oxygen out of the debate by creating false narratives will not stimulate any brain in need of clear thinking.

— Jan Techau, Director of the Europe Program