Brussels - US President Donald Trump’s demands to step up the fight against terrorism are set to resonate with his North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) partners when he visits the alliance headquarters for the first time on Thursday.
A deadly bombing in the UK this week has given fresh urgency to his call for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to become more engaged in fighting global terrorism. France and Germany dropped their resistance to an upgrade of NATO’s role in the international coalition against Islamic State on the eve of the summit.
Trump’s meeting with fellow NATO leaders in Brussels, a city he once called a “hellhole,” will go a long way to determining the future strength of the trans-Atlantic alliance. While facing foot-dragging from countries including Italy and Germany to his calls to raise defense spending, he’s likely to find common ground on the shared threat posed by radical Islamist terrorism.
The Manchester attack will play a “big role” in the meeting and “drives home the Trump administration’s message that more needs to be done to fight terrorism,” said Kristine Berzina, a Brussels-based fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
While the shared threat will help to avert fresh tensions with partners already anxious about the Trump administration’s priorities, potential flashpoints remain. Prime Minister Theresa May will have an opportunity to raise British concerns about the US leaking of intelligence related to the Manchester attacks that is regarded as a breach of trust by a key ally.
Message of unity
The forces tugging at NATO will be symbolized before the summit dinner when the leaders inaugurate a new headquarters.
The steel-and-glass complex will feature pieces of the Berlin Wall, whose fall in 1989 marked the West’s victory in the Cold War against Russia, and of the World Trade Center, whose collapse in the 2001 terrorist attacks prompted the only occasion when the alliance has invoked its mutual-defense clause.
At issue for NATO in the Middle East is whether the alliance becomes a full member of the coalition fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. NATO currently plays a supporting role through the use of Airborne Warning and Control System planes and the training of Iraqi soldiers.
Germany and France had expressed concerns that upgrading NATO’s involvement could skew the geographical balance among the existing 68 partners in the coalition and weaken it, according to European officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations are confidential.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said broad support exists for making the organisation a full member of the coalition and doing so will offer political and practical benefits.
“All 28 allies are members of the global coalition and today we will agree on NATO’s membership in the coalition,” Stoltenberg told reporters on Thursday, adding that the alliance will not engage in combat operations. “This will send a strong political message of NATO’s commitment to the fight against terrorism and also improve our coordination within the coalition.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters on the plane to Brussels from Rome that it would be an “important step.” NATO’s “been an observer. But they’ve become more and more engaged in the actual fight to defeat” Islamic State, he said.
The fight against Islamic State will also be at the forefront of the Group of Seven meeting later this week, with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni saying in a statement that leaders “will deliver the strongest possible message of extraordinary and common commitment against terrorism.”
Trump even broached the topic with the Pope on his visit to the Vatican, discussing extremism and the radicalization of young people, Tillerson said.
Trump has leverage to gain concessions from Europe both over NATO’s anti-terrorism activities and over allies’ defense expenditure because European officials are genuinely worried about his commitment to the alliance, not least its mutual-defense provision, said Berzina. She said they are keen for Trump to show unequivocal support for collective defense at the summit.
“Because NATO is a consensus-based organization dominated by the US, the Europeans can’t just fire back the way they do when acting as European Union members,” Berzina said. “This could lead to concrete results in the near future on Trump’s demands regarding NATO.”
The timing of Thursday’s dinner, at what is for many Europeans the unthinkably early hour of 17:45, illustrates the American influence on the Alliance.
Brussels, which was targeted in a 2016 terror attack that left 32 dead, is the penultimate stop for Trump on a four-country tour that marks his first overseas trip as US president and that has coincided with a growing political storm at home over possible Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The controversy has sparked a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into whether anyone close to Trump colluded with Russia.
On defense expenditure, with the Trump administration pressing Europe to foot more of the common security bill, NATO members intend to draw up annual plans for increased spending. The US accounts for about 70% of NATO’s overall defense outlays.
In 2014, NATO members set a goal of spending at least 2% of gross domestic product on defense within a decade and last year in Europe only Estonia, Greece, Poland and the UK met the target. The US led in 2016 with defense expenditure of 3.61% of GDP.
In a concession to Germany, which has raised defense outlays while rejecting any rush to the 2% target and urging smarter spending in Europe, NATO allies aim to allow national plans to include non-military contributions such as development aid that help meet overall security goals.
Amid the pressure from Trump over defense budgets, the EU is drafting plans to spend more of its common budget on defense research, pool procurement and give the arms industry better access to finance.
“I think you can expect the president to be very tough on them,” said Tillerson, who reiterated US support for NATO’s collective defense obligation. “The American people are doing a lot for your security, for our joint security. You need to make sure you’re doing your share for your own security as well.”