Updated Apr 4, 2024 - World

NATO plots Trump survival strategy on its 75th birthday

Photo illustration of four images of Trump delivering a speech divided by the NATO logo.

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photos: Scott Olson, Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Top diplomats from NATO's member states, gathering Thursday on the alliance's 75th birthday, will be talking about the threat posed by Moscow — and from the potential next occupant of the White House.

Why it matters: NATO has two new members and a resurgent sense of mission after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But with Donald Trump waiting in the wings, the alliance could be on course for another existential crisis at a much more dangerous time for Europe.

Driving the news: At this week's gathering in Brussels, NATO foreign ministers are expected to discuss a plan to Trump-proof military aid to Ukraine.

  • The proposal would put a U.S.-led organization overseeing weapons shipments to Ukraine under NATO control to ensure continuity if Trump takes office in January.
  • There are also ongoing discussions within the alliance about ways to ensure European militaries can match some responsibilities that would currently fall on the U.S., says Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.
  • Such deliberations tend to take place without mentioning the elephant not in the room, Daalder says. "Talking about Trump coming in is, in fact, talking about Biden losing. So it's more about, 'Europe needs to do more.'"

The other side: Trump riffed in February that he'd "encourage" Russia "to do whatever the hell they want" to a NATO ally if the country wasn't spending enough on defense — the latest and arguably most inflammatory in his long history of alliance-shaking rhetoric.

  • He said last month that he'd stay in the alliance if other members pay their "fair share," but also said the U.S. would be fine outside NATO because "we have an ocean in between [us and] some problems."

Between the lines: While NATO members don't actually owe "dues," as Trump often phrases it, the U.S. accounts for two-thirds of all defense spending among member states, lending credence to his claim members are freeloading off American military might.

NATO members in Europe
Data: NATO; Map: Axios Visuals

State of play: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has been trumpeting the fact that a record number of allies will meet the alliance's target of spending 2% of GDP on defense this year.

  • Stoltenberg's decade-long tenure will end in October. Containing Trump's challenge to the alliance ranks high on his list of accomplishments.
  • The overwhelming favorite to replace him, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, has been striking Trump-friendly notes lately. He's said the former president was right to pressure Europe on defense spending, and told the Munich Security Conference: "Stop moaning and whining and nagging about Trump."
  • The affable Dutchman has Biden's backing, but also seemed to charm Trump during their previous meetings.

The big picture: NATO had 12 founding members in 1949. Now that Sweden has joined, this week's ministerial is the first with 32 represented.

  • Even if Trump doesn't bring that number down to 31, Daalder says, Biden is likely "the last real Atlanticist president."
  • "There is this deeper realization in Europe that even if Trump doesn't win, they need to start thinking about how you make the European pillar within NATO bigger, stronger, more capable, for a time when the United States is less interested," he says.

The bottom line: "The United States left Europe after the First World War. That was not a big success. So therefore, I'm glad that after the Second World War, the United States decided to stay," Stoltenberg said Wednesday evening at a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary.

  • Left unstated was the question of what would happen if the U.S. decides to leave once again.
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