NATO emerges battered, bruised but still alive after tense summit
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, July 12, 2018 7:54PM EDT
OTTAWA -- After two days spent serving as a soapbox for Donald Trump, the 69-year-old military alliance known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has come out battered, bruised -- but still breathing.
The unpredictable U.S. president -- and his angry demand that allies such as Canada increase their defence spending -- was very much the focal point during this week's gathering in Brussels, with memories of last month's disastrous G7 meeting in Quebec still fresh in the minds of many.
The stakes were high for the NATO countries and their leaders, given the growing threat of political and economic instability around the world, the ever-present threat of terrorism and recent aggression by Russia --whose forebear, the Soviet Union, the alliance was established to defend against back in 1949.
How well they fared depends on who you ask.
"It's disturbing and even painful to watch, but NATO emerges significantly stronger as a result of Trump's tactics, however unbecoming," said retired Canadian Forces colonel Brett Boudreau, who spent three years at NATO headquarters as spokesman and adviser to the chairman of the NATO military committee.
Trump, who went into this week's summit trailing grievances about the U.S. having spent decades taking up the slack for penny-pinching allies, came out of it singing NATO's praises with his usual outsized flair, calling it a "finely tuned machine" that's now "richer than it ever was."
"There's a great collegial spirit in that room that I don't think they've had in many years," he said. "They're very strong. Very unified, very strong. No problem. No problem."
That optimism was echoed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who noted that leaders had agreed to a range of initiatives that would make the alliance stronger and better able to quickly respond to new and existing threats such as Russia and terrorism.
They include the addition of new headquarters units, one of which will focus on securing the North Atlantic, as well as having more troops ready to respond on short notice and a new NATO training mission in Iraq that Canada has offered to lead.
"Our decisions at the Brussels summit show that, as the world changes, Europe and North America stand together and act together in NATO," Stoltenberg declared at the end of summit.
Of the secretary general, Trump said he "gives us total credit -- meaning me, I guess, in this case. Total credit."
On that point, he may not be entirely off base, said Boudreau.
"If, in the end, NATO nations including Canada feel compelled even if bullied to contribute more to their own and to collective defence and security, that's a positive outcome."
Others, such as University of Ottawa professor Roland Paris, who previously served as Trudeau's foreign policy adviser, were left unimpressed with Trump's approach, saying it could pose a danger to the alliance, whose very strength rests on unity.
"Trump did in Brussels what he has done elsewhere: He manufactured a crisis and then grandiosely claimed to have fixed it, leaving America's allies bruised and irritated," Paris said.
"That's not a way to strengthen a partnership that has been the cornerstone of Western security for generations."
Ever the showman, Trump appeared to set up a sequel for his squabble with NATO by repeatedly suggesting that members should spend four per cent of GDP on defence, rather than the agreed-upon target of two per cent -- and wouldn't rule out on leaving the alliance if members don't pony up.
He also left the door open to cancelling military exercises in the Baltics during his upcoming meeting with Putin, and danced around the question of whether he would recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea -- a decision that would shake NATO to the core.
Trudeau, for his part, appeared determined to avoid another summit-closer disaster after last month's G7 meeting in Quebec, where the president excoriated him on Twitter and rescinded his support for the G7 communique upon hearing the prime minister promise to defend Canada against U.S. trade aggression.
Trudeau gingerly played down any divisions on Russia, saying Trump himself took a strong stance during the summit against Russian interference in member states.
"The concerns about Russia, the concerns about threats to the alliance were met with solidarity and unity," he said, "and we are looking forward to a good meeting and a productive and constructive meeting between President Putin and President Trump."
On the surface, NATO is better off now, thanks to the promise of higher spending and the new initiatives adopted in Brussels, said defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
The question remains, however: how long can the foundation bear Trump's weight?
"In terms of real capability, the alliance has become stronger over the last couple of years," he said. "But the president's behaviour and the way he treats allies only threatens to undermine solidarity in the alliance."