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Donald Trump, Russia and money: what we learned from this year’s NATO Summit

After days of diplomatic confusion, the 2018 NATO summit has drawn to a close. As representatives from the alliance’s 29 member states return to their respective countries – or, in the case of US president Donald Trump, travel on to meet his Russian and British counterparts – the participants will all be trying to make sense of what happened.

Trump’s contributions to international events are often gauche in the extreme, and this summit was no exception. His visit was accompanied by awkward handshakes, off-topic Twitter posts and oddly symbolic photos. Belligerent comments are also par for the course; within moments of arriving at his first breakfast meeting, Trump decried the Nord Stream 2 energy infrastructure project as “very inappropriate” while NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg looked on in horror. He went on to state that Germany was a “captive of Russia” before indicating, once again, that Europe’s largest economy contributed too little to NATO coffers.

The €9.5 billion Nord Stream 2 installation will see Germany connected directly to Russia through a 1,200km gas pipeline. The project has been dogged by controversy, with NATO member states repeatedly questioning the implications for European energy security as relations with Russia worsen. The conspicuous appointment of former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, personal friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin, as chairman of the pipeline’s operator, Nord Stream AG, and independent director of the Russian energy giant Rosneft has stoked the view that Russia has captured a permissive Germany’s energy supply.

It’s certainly true that Germany relies on Russian gas imports, but gas makes up only 20% of Germany’s energy mix. Germany is also increasingly tying completion of the Nord Stream 2 project to Ukraine and Poland’s economic security – given some existing pipelines pass through their territory – although Eastern European states are sceptical of Germany’s reassurances on this front.

Trump’s repeated comments certainly go beyond the concerns raised by others. They are also simplistic and crude – and based on Angela Merkel’s cool reaction, it looks like they missed their mark.

From budgets to burden-sharing

Trump is consistently inconsistent. On day one of the summit he threatened to pull the US out of NATO over the diminutive defence expenditure of other alliance members. On day two he stated that the United States’ commitment to the alliance remains “very strong”.

Burden-sharing has been a key focus of NATO summits for years. It’s also long been a bugbear for the US, which spends more on defence both as a percentage of GDP and in absolute terms than any other member. At the 2014 Wales summit, NATO members pledged to raise defence expenditure to 2% of GDP by 2024, while also committing 20% of national defence expenditure to equipment procurement. But only five states have reached that level today. While some members are on track, many (including Germany) are unlikely to reach the target by 2024.

Defiance. EPA/Christian Bruna

Trump somewhat surprisingly demanded the 2% target be raised to 4%, although this was not reflected in the eventual summit declaration. Nonetheless, the 2018 summit has refocused attention on the 2% benchmark, highlighting how it distracts from the broader contribution member states make to NATO. While Greece hits the 2% target (and steers clear of Trump’s attacks in the process) it contributes little to NATO operations. Conversely, Germany provides the second largest number of troops for NATO operations even though it spends only 1.2% of GDP on defence.

Under NATO’s Article 3, member states commit to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack” – but it’s clear that many European NATO members lack this capacity today. While questions about burden-sharing are therefore partially justified, it’s counterproductive to fixate on the 2% target without discussing the outputs of NATO expenditure.

Trouble to the east

In one of the more positive moments of the summit, the newly christened Republic of North Macedonia (which has been renamed following the conclusion of a long-standing dispute with Greece) was invited to join NATO. This was received gladly in Brussels, although Macedonia still has a number of hurdles to clear before membership is finalised. Its citizens are yet to approve the country’s new name, on which membership hinges, which they will do via a politically loaded referendum.

NATO’s demand-driven eastward expansion into states of the former Soviet Union has generated controversy itself. Russia is far from happy to see a US-led military alliance encroaching on its border. The 2018 summit saw little movement on the thorny issue of Georgian membership, and when it comes to Macedonia’s new name, Russia has so far refused to endorse the agreement for fear that this relatively tiny country could become a NATO member. Georgia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are other contentious NATO members-in-waiting, and despite their long history in Russia’s orbit, both have contributed to NATO-led operations.

Overall, one thing is clear: this was a NATO summit like no other. And despite Jens Stoltenberg’s continued positive attitude, Trump’s bluntness has exposed fault lines throughout the alliance. How members will respond in the long term is anyone’s guess.

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