Biden, Trump fears loom over NATO summit, Europe's defense


WASHINGTON – NATO leaders returned this week to the auditorium where the alliance was born to celebrate 75 years as a military-defense pact and mull over current and future threats to its stability.

But hanging over the three-day summit like a dark cloud is a major concern that’s not on the official agenda: the U.S. presidential election.

President Joe Biden’s physical and mental fitness after last month’s calamitous debate and former President Donald Trump’s possible return to the White House after the November election are cause for alarm among European allies.

“This is an election where the Europeans are paying very close attention,” said Rose Gottemoeller, who was deputy secretary general of NATO when Trump was president.

Gottemoeller said she has taken several trips to Europe – most recently in May and June – and “the first question out of people's mouth was what happens if Donald Trump returns to the White House and what will happen to the American commitment to NATO and to European defense.”

Fueling the fears are Trump’s dismissive attitude toward NATO. He has mocked its defense pact as “obsolete” and threatened to let Russia “do whatever” it wants to member nations that do not carry their weight.

The threats have left European governments scrambling to determine whether the U.S. could be counted on to defend them if they were to come under attack.

President Joe Biden speaks during the NATO 75th Anniversary celebratory event at the Mellon Auditorium in Washington.
President Joe Biden speaks during the NATO 75th Anniversary celebratory event at the Mellon Auditorium in Washington.

Biden’s shaky performance during the debate also alarmed European officials, who watched it with the same level of as many Americans.

Dan Fried, the former U.S. ambassador to Poland, was in Warsaw the day of the debate and had a series of meetings with senior Polish officials the next day. Those officials expressed concern about the election, he said.

“I’ve been hearing for a while from lots of other European officials that those concerns are widely shared,” Fried said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the organization’s legislative arm, said he has tried to reassure European officials.

“They experienced Trump,” he said. “And they're very anxious about the prospect of his return.”

Connelly says he has told them: “We're fighting it out. But from my point of view, American support for NATO and participation in NATO is solid. And we're going to do everything we can to make sure, no matter what the results of our election, that that stays that way.”

NATO gathering: His reelection campaign in crisis, Joe Biden hosts high-stakes summit in Washington

Adding to the instability is that governmental turmoil extends far beyond the United States.

French President Emmanuel Macron suffered a crushing defeat in European Union parliamentary elections in June on the same day Biden flew home after a five-day trip to Paris and Normandy. Macron responded by ordering a snap election and a vote nationwide. But the results of that parliamentary election, held on Sunday, muddled things further.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party won more seats in France’s National Assembly than ever before yet fell short of a majority in parliament, thanks to a coalition of left-wing parties that banded together to stop the right-wing surge.

The Netherlands swore in its first-ever far-right government last week. And in the United Kingdom, voters handed the government to the Labour Party after 14 years of conservative rule, giving the country its fourth prime minister in less than two years.

“There are a lot of discussions, doubts about the strength of our respective domestic political situations,” a European official told reporters during a briefing on NATO last week. “The goal for that summit is to counter that perspective.”

NATO is also getting a new secretary-general on Oct. 1. Former Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who left office this month, will replace Jens Stoltenberg at the end of his term. Stoltenberg has been in the role for the past 10 years and got along well with Trump.

But it is the U.S. election that is particularly worrisome for European officials, who for decades have counted on the United States’ commitment to the mutual-defense alliance since Western nations banded together to sign the North Atlantic Treaty in an auditorium a few blocks from the White House on April 4, 1949.

“I think people want reassurance, especially from the United States,” Connolly said.

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to hold a news conference after participating in the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium on July 12, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to hold a news conference after participating in the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium on July 12, 2018.

Trump's NATO threats cause alarm

What the former president’s approach to NATO might be has been a major source of consternation for allies.

He has repeatedly suggested he won’t help “delinquent” nations if they come under attack, even though NATO’s treaty does not include dues or a defense spending obligation.

“Look, that's the way you talk as a negotiator. I'm negotiating because I want them to pay. I want Europe to pay,” Trump said in an interview with Time magazine in April. “I want nothing bad to happen to Europe, I love Europe, I love the people of Europe, I have a great relationship with Europe. But they've taken advantage of us, both on NATO and on Ukraine.”

Allies pledged at a 2014 summit in Wales that they would try to spend 2% of their gross domestic product on defense. They agreed last summer in Vilnius, Lithuania, that 2% should be a floor and not a ceiling.

And while a decade ago, in 2014, just three NATO allies were spending 2% of their GDP or more, that number is projected to reach 23 by the end of 2024. It actually doubled under Biden, but much of that, experts say, is because of Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

And yet, when Trump debated Biden in June, he doubled down on his position. “He’s right about this, I said, no, I’m not going to support NATO if you don’t pay.

“And you know what happened? Billions and billions of dollars came flowing in the next day and the next months,” he said. “But now, we’re in the same position. We’re paying everybody’s bills.”

His constant disparaging of NATO and his threat to withhold Article 5 defense protections against members who don’t meet their 2% pledge is alarming to NATO members, Fried said.

“A lot of NATO governments are not wringing their hands or just running around in a kind of panic,” he said. “What they’re doing is trying to figure out how to reach Trump world, what their message should be and how to affect possible Trump administration thinking.”

Moving forward: NATO may declare Ukraine's path to membership 'irreversible' at Washington summit

'Dangerous and deeply irresponsible'

Trump’s comments about leaving lagging European countries to fend for themselves have been interpreted by some as a threat to leave the alliance.

A source close to Trump told USA TODAY that would not be the case.

“That doesn't mean you get out of NATO,” the person said. “He's never been there.”

Trump is approaching it like a businessman, the person said, and wants to force a conversation.

“I think people should just relax and see where it's going to go,” the person said. “And if it's got them a little bit nervous, I don't think that's necessarily bad. ... You’ve got them now interested enough to make sure that they're moving forward as an alliance. ... It's a good discussion point, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.”

Remarks disparaging NATO are unhelpful, said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank.

“When we invest in NATO, we’re investing in our own national security, and we’re deterring war,” Bowman said. Comments from American political leaders that undermine NATO and make its deterrent less credible are dangerous and deeply irresponsible.”

Trump repeated several of his previous complaints in a social media post Tuesday afternoon as the leaders of allied nations arrived in the U.S.

“If it weren’t for me as President, there probably would be no NATO by now,” he said on his social media platform, Truth Social, in a post that claimed European countries “owe” the United States billions for assistance to Ukraine.

He claimed incorrectly that “no other president” had addressed the disparities.

While the former president did successfully push allies to spend more while he was in office, the number has continued to go up under Biden, and the topic will be a major focus of the U.S. officials on both sides of the aisle during the Washington summit.

Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said in an interview that some of the countries that have not yet met the mark are expected to do so in the next two to three years. Others are spending above the floor.

“We have been pushing every ally to get there since President Biden came into office,” she said. “We will take a minute at the summit to celebrate the major milestone of getting to 23 allies. And certainly we will continue to talk with leaders.”

Biden and the leaders of the other 31 NATO nations are at the Washington summit, plus the heads of a handful of partner countries.

“And the best way to make progress is to talk to the head of state, the person that's in charge about the need to get there as soon as possible,” Smith said.

Stoltenberg, who as NATO secretary-general worked with Trump for all four years of his term, told reporters during a June roundtable in Washington that multiple U.S. presidents have fairly pushed European countries to spend more money on defense.

The push in 2014 to spend 2% GDP came when Barack Obama was president. Trump got them to invest more. The number of countries meeting that marker has continued to rise under Biden.

“So I'm confident that the United States will recognize that European allies are now really stepping up, and I expect the U.S. to remain a strong NATO ally, regardless of the outcome of the elections,” Stoltenberg said.

Stoltenberg said he expects that to happen because it is in the United States’ interest for NATO to maintain its strength in light of U.S. concerns about China. Alone, the U.S. represents 25% of the world's GDP. Together, with NATO allies, it represents 50%, he said.

Not only does polling show most Americans support the NATO alliance, Stoltenberg said, “The criticism from former President Trump has not primarily been against NATO, it has been against NATO allies not spending enough on NATO, and that has changed.”

Trump's 'transactional diplomacy'

Even in the U.S. Congress, where more than half of House of Republicans voted in April against Ukraine aid, support for the alliance has remained strong, U.S. officials pointed out.

House Speaker Mike Johnson will meet Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. A bipartisan group of senators from the NATO Observer Group are attending the summit.

And as part of a defense spending bill that Congress passed last year and Biden signed, any future president would have to get the Senate’s approval for withdrawal.

“European leaders and Europeans more broadly are certainly following our election closely and will be interested to see the results in early November, but at the same time, I think what gives them faith and confidence in the U.S. position in the alliance is looking at, for example, congressional support, which remains bipartisan,” said Smith, the current ambassador to NATO.

Republicans and Democrats come through Brussels, where NATO is headquartered, and regularly talk about the importance of the alliance, she said. “And so irrespective of what change might come in the United States, I think Europeans know that all U.S. presidents going back over seven decades have supported this alliance, and they assume that that will continue.”

And while Europeans are monitoring the election, she said, “they also understand that candidates sometimes say things on the campaign trail that are different than what they actually do in practice.”

John Herbst, who was ambassador to Ukraine under George W. Bush, also said that despite the concerns, “a fair number of them realize that when Trump was president, his statements were not actually reflective of his administration's policy.”

“A lot of people believe – both his supporters and his opponents – that much of what he does is geared for transactional diplomacy,” Herbst said. “It’s a ploy to get what he wants.”

Francesca Chambers and Michael Collins cover the White House. Follow Chambers on X @fran_chambers and Collins @mcollinsNEWS.

How dangerous are China and Russia? Threats grow as NATO leaders meet in Washington.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Presidential election, Trump's possible return loom over NATO summit