A NATO summit in the shadow of Putin and Trump


Lerato Khumalo

Russia’s war against Ukraine has given NATO an immense increase in importance. The mood at the anniversary summit could be better, however – and not only because the war does not seem to be ending.

When the real work begins this Wednesday after the big ceremony to mark NATO’s 75th anniversary for Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the other heads of state and government, two people who are not even present will have a say in what happens. One is Vladimir Putin, who gave the Western defense alliance a second spring with his military aggression against Ukraine. The other is Donald Trump, who represents the uncertainty and worries that the alliance faces despite its new importance because of the brutal war in the middle of Europe.

Would the defense alliance survive if Trump were to become US president again after a four-year break? And if not, what would the world look like afterwards?

There will be no answer to any of these questions at the NATO summit. What is certain, however, is that Trump’s chances of winning the US presidential election in November have increased in recent days. After the disastrous performance of his Democratic opponent Joe Biden in a TV debate a few days ago, Trump gained in the polls. The Republican, who was president from 2017 to 2021, was able to extend his lead over Biden. If Biden makes a poor impression at the summit, this could give Trump further tailwind.

Negotiating with Russia over Ukraine’s head

One reason for concern about Trump’s possible re-election is Ukraine. During the US election campaign, the Republican repeatedly claimed that he could end the Russian war of aggression in 24 hours. However, it is clear that he does not want to help Ukraine win against Russia with additional military support.

The online portal “Politico” reported, citing people close to the Republican, that Trump is considering a kind of deal in which NATO would commit itself not to expand further east. At the same time, he wants to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin about how much Ukrainian territory Moscow can keep. From the perspective of most European states, such an approach would be an outrageous and at the same time extremely dangerous breach of taboo. Putin could then write off his war as a success and be tempted to further aggression.

Questioning the obligation to provide assistance

Another cause for concern for many is the experiences with the Republican during his term in office from 2017 to 2021 and the most recent statements from the election campaign. During his first term in office, Trump repeatedly railed against what he considered to be too low defense spending by European allies and at times even threatened to withdraw the United States from the alliance. In the most recent election campaign, he repeated these accusations and portrayed the United States under Biden as a country that was allowing itself to be ripped off by European rip-off artists.

At the beginning of the year, Trump threatened to stop providing American protection to NATO countries that did not meet their financial obligations – and practically encouraged Russia to do whatever it wanted with them. And in an interview he warned that one must not forget that NATO is more important for Europe than for the USA, because there is an ocean, “a beautiful, big, beautiful ocean” between the USA and “some problems” in Europe.

All of this is problematic because NATO, as a defense alliance, relies on the principle of deterrence. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is relevant for this. It regulates the obligation to provide assistance within the alliance and states that an armed attack against one or more allies is considered an attack against all.

The extent of the nervousness is shown by the current efforts to at least make support for Ukraine somewhat Trump-proof. For example, NATO wants to take over the international coordination of arms deliveries and training for the Ukrainian armed forces in the future – in the event that the Americans, who have been carrying out this task up to now, should scale back their involvement under Trump.

At the same time, the alliance is aware that a total failure of its alliance partner, the USA, would be impossible to compensate for. According to current NATO figures, the United States will spend around 968 billion US dollars on defense this year, almost twice as much as the European allies and Canada combined.

However, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is nevertheless optimistic and points to the positive developments in recent years. “I expect the USA to remain a strong ally, regardless of the outcome of the US elections,” he told the German Press Agency shortly before the summit. One reason is that NATO also makes the USA stronger and more secure. There is also strong cross-party support for NATO in the US Congress and among the US public, and European allies have recently done a lot. “Today, 23 allies spend two percent of their gross domestic product on defense – compared to three in 2014, when we agreed on the two percent target,” he said. “This shows that the USA is not bearing the burden alone.”