Nick Mutch is a political and defence journalist based in London. He is currently assisting Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott with their book on the state of the armed forces.
Behind a façade of unity, Jens Stoltenberg did not look like a man who was excited to host a summit of the most important and, in his words, the “most successful” military alliance in history. At his 9am doorstep press conference on Thursday, the NATO Secretary- General looked anxious and pale, as though he would rather be anywhere else in the world.
He intoned his affirmation to boost the Alliance’s efforts to fight terrorism and intelligence-sharing among countries in a dull, shaky monotone. while engaged in a constant nervous fidget with his pen. He only showed signs of animation when asked by a journalist why Russia wasn’t on the official conference agenda, scolding him by replying: “Russia is always on NATO’s agenda!”
You could hardly blame him for his trepidation. Throughout Brussels for the last few days, there had only been one name on everyone’s lips. Everyone I spoke to, from bartenders and waitresses to senior NATO officials and the Belgian Prime Minister, was talking about Donald Trump.
The US President had flown in to Brussels the previous afternoon, and was due to give a keynote speech at an alliance he had recently described as “obsolete” in a city he had described as a “hellhole” during his presidential campaign. The entire event had been apparently designed with his interests and eccentricities in mind.
The two items on the agenda – the growing threat of international terrorism and burden and cos- sharing among NATO members – are the personal bugbears of Trumps, while the assembled heads of state and government had been reportedly told to keep their contributions at the working dinner to between two to four minutes to keep his interest. “It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child — someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing,” was what a NATO source told Foreign Policy the week before the summit.
I’ve been researching NATO as part of a book on the state of the British armed forces, and was excited to get a look into the belly of the beast. I’d been preparing for weeks and, after an agonising accreditation process finally arrived in Brussels. On the day of the summit, the city was in complete lockdown. The streets were empty, while the skies were patrolled by helicopters. All the shops were shut. In the 20-minute ride to the summit, we barely saw another car on the roads.
Arriving at the summit was something of a nerve-wracking experience. I had my press card and passport examined four times while passing through a metal detector and a sniffer dog before all the journalists were shepherded into a huge tent that looked an aircraft hangar. Throughout the day, a few national officials and ministers gathered in the tents for huddles with their countries press pools. But as one of the Polish journalists dryly remarked of his President’s press secretary: “you know he’s not going to say anything interesting.”
While Russia was not on the official agenda, its presence hung over the conference. The foreword to NATO’s annual report reminds readers of the danger posed by Russia’s expansionism, and of the illegal occupation of Crimea. There is a shelf of flyers that are variously devoted to the ‘Top five Russian myths about NATO’, the growing threat of cyber warfare (principally Russian cyber warfare) and the history of Russia-NATO relations, which squarely blamed the actions of Vladimir Putin for the breakdown in relations.
One item that clearly had leaders worried is the future of intelligence-sharing after allegations that Trump and his administration have been extraordinarily lax with sensitive intelligence – including sharing classified Israeli intelligence with the Russian ambassador.
Justin Trudeau was just one of the leaders flustered by a question put to him by a Canadian journalist, who asked NATO can expect to have a fruitful partnership on intelligence-sharing if they can’t trust the primary member to keep it secure. “The track record has shown that collaboration and co-operation between allies, friends and partners has saved lives and keeps all of our citizens safe” he replied. “That’s a diplomatic response” one of the Fox News journalists present in the massive roped-off area marked for the official White House Pool said with a laugh. “No response at all,” one of his colleagues shouted back at him.
Throughout the entire event, Trump was playing the Alpha Male, constantly asserting his dominance over the other assembled leaders. One much-circulated video from the summit shows him shoving Filip Vujanović, Montenegro’s President, to the side to take his place at the front of the pack of leaders, which is followed by him tugging at his suit and showing his chest out. During a bilateral meeting with Emmanuel Macron, the two engaged in a farcical handshake in which each appeared to grimace as they tried to crush the others hand.
Later, all eyes were on the ceremony to unveil a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks, during which Trump was due to deliver brief remarks. Stoltenberg scowled hugely. While introducing Trump, the NATO Secretary-General came close to begging Trump opnely to pledge to back Article 5 of NATO’s Charter, which enshrines the principle of collective defence. He reminded him that the only time it has been invoked was after “those attacks struck at the heart of your own home town”. NATO, he pleaded, should be “all for one and one for all”.
By way of reply, Trump lectured the NATO leaders on their lack of payments, reminding them that only ’23 of 28’ are meeting their commitments to spend at least two per cent of GDP on defence, and said that many countries thus “owe massive amounts of money from past years,”. He pointedly failed to endorse Article 5 and barely mentioned Russia – which Foreign Policy scored as a ‘Win for Putin’.
Throughout, a scowl was chiselled into the face of Angela Merkel. Stoltenberg, for his part, looked dejected. There was an eerie parallel with an image of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s Governor, who was pictured at a Trump campaign rally with a grimace – and had commentators asking afterwards if he had been held hostage.]
The handover ceremony was a stark contrast to the tension and chaos of the previous parts of the conference. The leaders filed in, with Trump seeming calm, and making no effort push his way in front this time. He chatted amiably to Theresa May, who it seems he gets on with very well indeed: she was leaning in very closely to him. Charles Michel, the Belgian Prime Minister, gave one of the most impassioned and rousing speeches of the summit, telling attendees that “the values of NATO, our common values, are not obsolete! Freedom, peace, security, human rights, democracy, the rule of law will always prevail.”
So is a NATO summit sof any practical consequence, judging by this one? I’m not a seasoned NATO observer, but I felt Alliance has its work cut out for it. Despite hopes that Trump would tone down his behaviour for a summit, it seems to have been an arena for him to showboat, and assert his interests. And it doesn’t seem as though the acquiescence of others had any effect on him. Trump scored a big win by getting the alliance officially to join the campaign against Islamic State, while giving no ground on issues such as Russian aggression, America’s commitment to Article 5 or allies’ payments. If Trump came to promote ‘America First’, he certainly got his way. Whether that is good for the rest of alliance or for global security is less straightforward.