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NATO allies spooked by Trump despite White House soothing

An illustration of Trump and other world leaders.
Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images, Chesnot/Getty Images, Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Image, Jasper Juinen/Getty Images, and Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images.

This week's NATO meeting in London will be "a celebratory leaders' meeting," according to a White House talking point ahead of President Trump's trip. But European officials aren't betting on it, and Trump has been privately complaining about France's President Emmanuel Macron. 

Best-case scenario, for Europeans: Trump sticks to the script — taking credit for a stronger NATO and celebrating the fact that the Europeans are spending more on their defense. 

  • "Allies believe they have worked hard to construct a positive narrative that Trump can buy into," a senior official from a NATO member state told me.
  • The official summarized that narrative as "increased defense spending by European allies of $130b since 2016 ... plus decrease in U.S. share of NATO budget plus increased high readiness forces."
  • Trump, with the 2020 election coming up, "will want to take credit for that," the official said. But "allies still very much fear the unpredictability of the president."

Behind the scenes: Three senior administration officials told me Trump has been deeply annoyed by Macron, who recently told The Economist that "what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO" and that the United States under Trump's leadership appears to be "turning its back on us."

  • "He's been down on Macron for a long while," said one official.
  • The leaders' "bromance" appears to be a distant memory. Trump has described Macron as a "wise guy" in conversations with his advisers. (He has privately used the same phrase to describe Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.)
  • Another official said Macron's comments may have the ironic effect of causing Trump to speak more positively about the alliance to contradict Macron's negativity.

The Europeans, meanwhile, have shared their worries widely ahead of the meeting. "All I'm hearing is great anxiety about what Trump might do or say," said Ivo Daalder, who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013.

Between the lines: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has preemptively placated Trump. He released new data showing that allies are spending many billions more on their defense, which Trump has demanded.

  • And in a move tailored for Trump — who has been infuriated by Germany's reluctance to spend more on defense — Stoltenberg announced that NATO allies will pick up some slack so that the U.S. no longer covers a larger share of the alliance's $2.5 billion central budget than Germany: 16% each starting in 2021.

The bottom line: Though a senior administration official told reporters on a Friday call that the NATO alliance "remains instrumental," European leaders say they've seen this movie before. They've learned the hard way to ignore cheery lines from the White House staff — and that only Trump speaks for Trump.

What to watch

We'll be watching to see how the NATO allies handle two crucial internal debates — how to manage NATO's problem child (Turkey) and how to handle a global power that poses a growing threat to the alliance (China).

Between the lines: "Turkey appears to have decided that its future is better assured by close alignment with Putin's Russia than with a US-led NATO," said Daalder. "The S-400 decision" — Turkey's decision to defy America and its NATO allies by purchasing the Russian anti-aircraft system — and its "deal with Russia" to take control of the border zone in Syria "are but the latest blows to NATO unity."

  • There's also increasing division in NATO over China, over whether to allow Huawei to operate 5G networks and over a growing alignment between Beijing and central and eastern European countries, Daalder said.
  • It's "dividing east and west Europe economically, politically and, increasingly, strategically as China's power and influence in Europe is on the rise."

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