There is a rather depressing side to President Trump’s trip to London to the NATO 70th anniversary conference; most of America’s allies would just as soon wish that he would not be there. Trump’s presence is so unpredictable that America’s friends do not want to deal with a leader who only plays by his own rules. They have observed how he has consistently made all his travels a show of personal bravado and one-upmanship. Dealing with the U.S. Government has been all about dealing with a totally arbitrary personality who has no understanding for history or long-standing relationships. The members of NATO also are acutely aware that the adversaries of the West recognize the impact that Trump has on the cohesion and viability of the alliance; most of which has not been good for the effectiveness of a unified West.
Specifically, the current NATO agenda is filled with important issues many of which Trump already has indicated his pursuit of position which are at variance with those of the other NATO members. These include: Turkey ‘s relationship with the alliance particularly following Turkey’s purchase and installation of the Russian built S-400 missile system, which is totally incompatible with that of the West; the unpredictable forthcoming British election and its effect on the future of the EU; Trump’s support of Brexit and how he has glowed about the positive economic impact it will have on future U.S.-U.K. trade relations; the growing deterioration of the 2015 Iranian nuclear arms deal (JCPA); the growing gap between the U.S. and Europe in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the lack of resolution of the U.S.-China trade war; and the continuing instability in the Gulf specifically between the Iranians and the Saudis. (Curiously, in the Gulf in particular, there is a growing sense that even the Saudis may be moving themselves towards resolving their continuing fight with Yemen rather than continuing to rely on an erratic U.S. policy.)
For NATO to continue to be viable—leaving aside Trump’s big bugaboo about the U.S. shouldering too much of the financial load of the alliance—confronting Russia in the East and its persistent encroachment on the Former Soviet Union (FSU), is NATO’s primary strategic issue. Given the President’s inexplicable relationship with Vladimir Putin, any form of NATO saber rattling runs amok of Trump’s priorities. The Europeans have watched the Russian conduct in the Middle East with great anxiety. They have seen Syria give Russia ports and military bases and Iran has used Russian military power to buttress their aggressive posture towards the Kurds and the Saudis. President Erdogan of Turkey has not only received Russian missile systems, but he also was welcomed by Trump at the White House; all this while Europe looked on aghast not knowing which way the Turkish Government would move.
Ironically, alleviated attention that Ukraine received during the House Intelligence Committee inquiry intensified Europe’s concern about what precisely was America’s desires in seeming to support Russia in its fight with Ukraine. There is an assumption that American and all the other NATO defense leaders are extremely anxious concerning the future Trump commitment to the alliance. Should Russia become more aggressive in its pursuit of additional former members of the Soviet Union—as they did with Ukraine—is there a genuine commitment from the Administration in Washington to challenge Putin? Certainly, some of the other members of the FSU are nervous already.
Similarly, given Trump’s decision to walk away from the JCPA deal and to renew U.S. sanctions on Iran, produced responses which many Europeans find unnerving. Iran’s decisions to violate expressed agreements and to increase experimental nuclear activity, make many in NATO queasy. There is no sense in NATO that Iran will even consider renegotiating an agreement that was broken by the U.S., without major concessions to its nuclear program.
Given the overall approach of President Trump, it is unlikely that this meeting will produce much more than some uneasy photo shots.