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Nato struggles to win over Trump at first meeting

media US and Nato leaders are preparing for the first summit with President Donald Trump on Thursday, 25 May 2017.. Reuters/Yves Herman/File Photo

The North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (Nato) will focus on counterterrorism and defence spending at its first summit with Donald Trump on Thursday, although the military grouping will have to juggle priorities and means if it follows the course advocated by the US president.

Speaking ahead of the summit on Wednesday, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said two main topics dominate the agenda of the summit.

One is the commitment to counterterrorism, including a possible participation of Nato in the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State armed group.

The other is what he called “burden sharing”, which has to do with the two percent of GDP target for defence spending that Trump has pressured all members to meet.

Nato members recall Trump saying the alliance was “obsolete” during his election campaign and, while the US president later retracted the comment, its leaders seemed anxious to address all his criticisms and doubts.

“Nato has been able to respond, adapt and change to a new and more demanding security environment,” Stoltenberg said. “That’s the reason Nato is the most successful alliance in history: have been united but also able to change when the world is changing.”

Although Stoltenberg barely mentioned the name of the US president, there is little doubt the format and messaging around the summit is directed at Trump.

“Everything that is happening for this leaders’ meeting is directly in response to President Trump’s comments and thoughts about the alliance,” says Kristine Berzina, a Nato analyst with the German Marshall Fund of the United States thinktank.

“Over the past two summits, the alliance has looked largely east and how to address the threat of Russia. The fact this particular meeting focuses so much on the two priorities the US presidency has is an answer to these comments about obsolescence.”

Counterterrorism either a shift or expansion in priorities

If the alliance were to expand its counterterrorism activities, it would either be at the expense of focus on other areas or in addition to them.

“The north is becoming more of an issue, the situation in Crimea and Ukraine is no better if not worse than it was a year ago, and there are also questions of the future of Libya, which go beyond simply counterterrorism,” Berzina says.

“Will Nato be able to look at all of these things in addition to a bigger focus on counterterrorism, or will Nato’s new commitment to these issues take away from some of these other areas? For the security of Europe at a time of unprecedented threat, anything that takes away from another threat is very worrying, so hopefully this is a summit about additionality rather than redirection.”

Any boosting of counterterrorism activities would involve more than purely military decisions.

“Most of the members of Nato are involved in the war on terrorism even though Nato is not officially a part of it, and that’s more a political issue than a military one,” says Hall Gardner, chair of the international affairs and comparative politics department at the American University in Paris.

“The other issue is what extent Nato should focus on Russia and the east, and the south and the issue of terrorism,” Gardner says, adding a third issue would be the alliance’s expansion. “It’s officially on the record as wanting to expand towards Ukraine and Georgia and I’d be very interested to see what the wording is about that subject when it comes up in the final summary of the conference.”

Article 5 and a 9-11 memorial

While eager to address Trump’s concerns, Nato members themselves will be hoping for reassurance of the US’s commitment to the alliance, namely to the crucial Article 5 of the Nato Treaty, which states that an attack on one ally is an attack on all.

Article 5 have only been activated once, following the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US, and the summit will open with the inauguration of a 9-11 memorial at a new Nato building in Brussels.

“Trump’s advisors and his secretary of state have all affirmed the Article 5 security guarantee but there’s some concern that Trump himself has not affirmed that aspect of the Nato relationship,” Gardner says. “[Nato members] are going to be looking for some sort of statement that the president is behind Nato and not just his team.”

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