A Disaster Foretold NATO Prepares for a Trumper Tantrum

NATO is preparing for a contentious summit this month, primarily due to the posturing by U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of the meeting. He has made it clear that he is unhappy - and Berlin is target number one. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
A NATO maneuver in Poland in June

A NATO maneuver in Poland in June


There's probably nowhere in Berlin more symbolic of U.S. solidarity with the Federal Republic of Germany than the former Tempelhof Airport. This summer, there will be celebrations at the site, now a massive park, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Air Lift, the spectacular aid effort by the U.S. Army from June 1948 to May 1949 to supply 2 million Berliners cut off by the Russian blockade.

This was the site chosen by the U.S. Embassy to host its Fourth of July party last Wednesday. "Tempelhof is one of those landmarks that show how much we mean to each other," said the outgoing chargé d'affaires. And U.S. President Donald Trump's new man in Berlin, Richard Grenell, said he felt humbled in the presence of so many people dedicated to trans-Atlantic relations.

It wasn't just the setting that was historic. The evocations of German-American friendship also seemed to come from the distant past. Ever since Donald Trump became U.S. president a year and a half ago, the trans-Atlantic relationship is no longer what it once was.

Trump has made it very clear that agreements, rules and traditions mean nothing to him. He ruthlessly puts the national interest -- or at least what he perceives as national interest -- ahead of an international order that was developed over the course of decades. He abandoned the Paris Climate Accord, ended the nuclear deal with Iran and thwarted WTO rules to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum from Europe.

At NATO, the trans-Atlantic military alliance, there is fear now that he will soon take the next destructive step, and Washington's European allies are nervously anticipating the forthcoming summit next week in Brussels. Most alliance members outside of the U.S. expect Trump to pick his next fight at the meeting. "NATO is facing its biggest crisis since its founding," said former NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. He says he is concerned that the NATO summit could end up being as big a disaster as the G-7 was. Specifically, Rasmussen is worried about Trump sparring publicly with his allies before paying court to Vladimir Putin four days after the NATO gathering, when he is scheduled to meet the Russian president in Helsinki.

It is most likely that the U.S. president will turn on those allies who are not fulfilling the NATO goal of spending the equivalent of 2 percent of their GDP on defense by 2024. In particular, Trump has Germany in his sights -- and not completely without reason. Berlin currently invests 1.2 percent of Germany's GDP in its military, and the government has said that by 2024 it will reach a maximum of 1.5 percent. There are those in NATO who feel that the U.S. president may threaten consequences if Germany and other allies do not make greater financial pledges. No one believes it was a coincidence that the Washington Post recently reported that the U.S. was considering pulling its soldiers out of Germany.

It's possible that Trump is also questioning the deployment of U.S. troops elsewhere in the world as well. He has let his allies know that he finds it increasingly difficult to justify to the American people why their soldiers are risking their lives when some countries do not share the common defense burden.

And here too, Trump has a point: The Afghanistan mission alone cost the United States 80 times more than Germany. Over 20,000 U.S. soldiers were wounded and almost 2,000 died in battle. In contrast, 204 German soldiers were injured and 35 were killed.

Many Points of Contention

The worst-case scenario envisioned by Europe involves Trump calling into question Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which holds that an attack on one alliance member is an attack on the entire alliance. Ever since Trump's election, the issue has been looming over NATO headquarters. Should he do so, Europe would then have to take care of its own protection, including the nuclear deterrent.

Still, it won't be the fault of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg if the summit ends in disaster. The Norwegian has planned the gathering down to the minutest detail, visiting the capitals of all NATO allies and preparing the draft documents. The focus, of course, is the 2-percent target on defense spending.

Beyond that, the alliance wants to agree on being able to increase troop numbers in Eastern Europe more quickly and efficiently should the need arise. The leaders also want to agree on the "NATO Readiness Initiative," which envisions the capability by 2020 of deploying 30 battalions, 30 battleships and 30 aircraft squadrons within 30 days or less.

But because of the many points of contention, Stoltenberg believes it is entirely possible that the summit could end in failure. The secretary general has instructed his staff to prepare for a variety of negative scenarios, including a premature departure by Trump -- as happened at the G-7 summit in Canada -- or an angry speech by the U.S. president or even a Trump announcement that he is leaving the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Trump's Watchdog

The most important thing, Stoltenberg has made it clear, is that the remaining allies present a united front. Yet without U.S. military might, the alliance would be as "obsolete" as Trump has claimed it is.

The president already demonstrated to his allies how little he thinks of diplomatic niceties when he visited NATO last May. "Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying," he complained, adding that they owed "massive amounts of money." The U.S. president sounded like he was lecturing a group of unruly schoolchildren.

At a rally in Great Falls, Montana last Thursday, Trump made it clear that his thinking hasn't changed. "Germany, which is the biggest country of the EU ... Germany pays 1 percent. One percent. And I said, you know, (Chancellor) Angela (Merkel), I can't guarantee it, but we're protecting you and it means a lot more to you than protecting us because I don't know how much protection we get by protecting you."

Berlin is bracing itself for similar hectoring at the summit -- a continuation of the kind of treatment received by German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen during her recent trip to Washington. A member of Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats, von der Leyen had actually gone to explain to the U.S. government why Germany would not be able to reach 1.5 percent by 2024. At the same time, she was armed with facts and figures to show how deeply the German military was engaged in the alliance.

But that didn't help the atmosphere. For one thing, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell surprised the Germans by flying to Washington to take part in all of the minister's discussions there. It was an unmistakable gesture: Donald Trump's watchdog was there to make sure that Berlin did not get off lightly.

Grenell left the attacking to John Bolton, Trump's national security advisor. Von der Leyen spent almost an hour in Bolton's narrow White House office, ensuring him that she had used almost all her political capital to push for an increase in defense spending.

Bolton listened, his staff diligently taking notes. But von der Leyen was unable to persuade the hardliner, and shortly before the end of the meeting, Bolton made the U.S. viewpoint clear, explicitly saying he was speaking in the name of the president. German engagement was nice, he said. But for the former businessman Trump, "only cash" mattered. Because Berlin hasn't delivered on that score, Bolton said, Trump was quite angry.

As she was leaving, von der Leyen was given a letter, sealed and addressed to Chancellor Merkel. It was immediately apparent to the minister that it was unlikely to be a diplomatic declaration of friendship.

The damaged relationship between Berlin and Washington was evident right at the beginning of the letter. Instead of the usual hand-written salutation, Merkel was addressed with the type-written "Dear Ms. Chancellor." In diplomatic correspondence, it doesn't get any frostier than that. The letter was signed with Trump's mighty signature.

Sharing Trump's Unease

The brief text was extremely clear. There is "growing frustration in the United States that some allies have not stepped up as promised," he wrote. The fact that some European countries, including Germany, were not prepared to spend more is "no longer sustainable for us."

The letter makes Trump's disdain for Merkel unmistakably obvious, and he even accused her of turning other EU states against him. "Continued German underspending on defense undermines the security of the alliance and provides validation for other allies that also do not plan to meet their military spending commitments, because others see you as a role model," he wrote.

When the letter first arrived in Berlin, it left many experts in the government speechless. They then learned that other EU allies and Canada had received similar letters from Trump, but that they were more moderate in tone. That has led German officials to believe that Berlin could become Trump's primary target at the NATO summit.

There are, though, many in Berlin as well who agree with Trump on this issue. "I also worry about the future of NATO," says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, deputy floor leader of the pro-business Free Democrats. But that's not just the U.S. government's fault, he argues. "An SPD foreign minister signed up to the 2-percent target and naturally Germany has to fulfill it at some point," Lambsdorff says. "Trump's letter is understandable," says Roderich Kieswetter, a defense expert for the Christian Democrats. "The U.S. president is essentially only criticizing Germany for the same thing his predecessor criticized it for."

According to the latest research by the German Council on Foreign Relations and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs an increase of military spending to 2 percent of GDP would require an extra 6.8 billion euros budgeted to the military each year. By 2024, that would be 85 billion euros, almost 30 billion more than either France or the U.K. spends. It would be the second biggest defense budget in NATO after that of the United States.

A Long-Running Dispute

The truth is, the dispute about the cost of freedom is as old as the Western alliance itself and it has always been intense. The roles have also always been the same: The Americans push, the Germans push back. The German contribution was "excellent," Chancellor Helmut Schmidt insisted back in the 1970s while his finance minister, Hans Matthöfer, made the searing comment that unlike American GIs, German soldiers had an "average level of intelligence." They could, Matthöfer said, "all read and write" and didn't have any drug problems. These things should be taken into account, he said, when comparing defense budgets.

Even Konrad Adenauer, Germany's first postwar chancellor, was reticent on defense spending -- and when he was confronted by Washington, he simply claimed he knew nothing about the requirement. In 1977, Schmidt's government promised to increase defense spending by 3 percent annually. Every year he and his ministers would said they would stick to this promise, yet every government up to the fall of the Berlin Wall failed to do so.

In contrast to the past, however, there is a president in Washington who is prepared to actually cast doubt on the future of the Western alliance if German spending doesn't improve.

Aside from the budget issue, Merkel is expecting that Germany will face additional criticism at the summit as well. The SPD, for example, is vehemently opposed to the German army taking part in a NATO operation to train troops in Iraq. Almost every other NATO ally has already signed up for the operation.

The German military is, to be sure, planning on taking part in two other training projects in Iraq, missions that involve German experts flying in from Jordan to help train Iraqi officers and a mine clearance team for six to eight weeks at a time. But due to SPD objections, the German mission is considered part of the coalition against Islamic State and is not subject to NATO command.

Tenuous German Narrative

It is a model that has raised hackles among several NATO allies. In a private discussion recently, the normally stoic NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, told German defense experts that no one in the alliance could understand why Germany wanted to engage with Iraq but expressly not with NATO.

The Bundeswehr's current problems also play into Trump's hands. It was only two weeks ago that the German navy had to withdraw from military commitments to NATO because its two remaining tanker ships had become so old that they needed to be repaired. Such incidents don't exactly help the German narrative, which holds that Berlin is doing its part militarily even if its defense spending isn't to snuff.

The U.S. president knows how to heap pressure on his allies and he sees the U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe as his biggest trump card. According to the Washington Post article, the Pentagon is currently studying how expensive it would be to withdraw or move a large part of the 35,000 troops stationed in Germany.

The article surprised many in Berlin. Only a few hours before it was published, Ambassador Grenell had told officials in a private conversation that there were no plans to withdraw troops. Quite the opposite: In the coming years there would actually be more U.S. soldiers stationed in Germany than before, he told them.

There's no way of knowing whether the ambassador, a close Trump confidante, was lying or if the article was inaccurate. What is certain, however, is that these kinds of episodes heighten concerns in Berlin that the summit will end in disaster.

The NATO allies now realized that they are dealing with an "unpredictable and obviously mentally impaired American president," says the president of Germany's Federal Academy for Security Policy, Karl-Heinz Kamp. This realization hangs above the summit like a "Damocles sword." It's a summit that "completely independent of factual issues, can only end in chaos."

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