US President Donald Trump’s NATO summit in Brussels unfolded like a three-act play.
Throughout it all, Trump deployed the tactics, stagecraft and rhetorical flourish that have come to define his approach to politics and international diplomacy, alternating between insults, threats and praise to whiplash effect.
The curtain opened in Brussels with a salvo of provocative insults aimed at one of the closest US allies, Germany. As his comments reverberated around the summit, Trump watched as the NATO secretary general was forced onto a tightrope woven out of the caustic statements. The US President delivered a characteristically Trumpian finale, calling for an unscheduled, closed-door meeting of NATO leaders before emerging to claim a reality-bending victory.
But his ultimate act of bravado at NATO – a hastily announced news conference during which Trump defended his hard-nose tactics and put the summit in his win column – was quickly falling apart as he left Brussels, with fellow world leaders disputing Trump’s bold claims that he secured new financial commitments from the alliance’s full membership.
Trump’s show, they suggested, was a charade.
Insults and threats, but NATO still stands
Trump’s opening act at NATO reignited concerns about Trump’s commitment to the NATO alliance, building on a sense of unease among European allies sparked by trade tensions and Trump’s increasingly critical rhetoric.
Trump’s broadside at Germany – accusing the country of being “totally controlled by” and “a captive of Russia” – amounted to a stunning attack on Germany’s sovereignty and a rebuke of its leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel. He followed up those comments with a demand that NATO members increase their defense spending “immediately.”
And during the closed session on Thursday, he offered a veiled threat about the fate of the US role in NATO if members did not ramp up their military spending. Trump told reporters he told the allies would “be very unhappy” unless they upped their efforts.
But just like last year when he publicly berated NATO members for lackluster defense spending, Trump emerged from the summit reaffirming the US commitment to the military alliance.
“I believe in NATO, I think NATO is a very important – probably the greatest ever done,” Trump declared during his exit news conference.
Projecting strength at home
Trump’s claims that he secured commitments from the alliance’s full membership to ramp up defense spending to 2% of each country’s GDP and sooner than the 2024 timeline were quickly debunked by his counterparts at NATO.
Trump’s emergency session on defense spending generated no new commitments. Instead, allies had already pledged in a communique the previous day to continue ramping up defense spending to improve burden-sharing and meet the 2024 target.
But none of that appeared to matter to Trump, who seemed more concerned with the appearance of a win and projecting strength on the world stage – to the potential delight of the supporters of his “America First” vision back home.
Trump kicked off his second day by confidently strolling into a meeting of NATO heads of state about 30 minutes after the meeting got underway, cameras capturing his solo march through NATO headquarters.
Trump’s provocative comments and theatrics at the NATO summit put Trump in control of the narrative billowing out of Brussels, giving his supporters the impression that he was confidently calling the shots.
But he overshadowed NATO achievements – and his own
The NATO alliance agreed during the summit to reinforce its deterrence and defense to counter Russian aggression, vowed to boost its counterterrorism capacity and approved a plan to improve mobilization capabilities.
The communique also homed in on the need for NATO allies to boost their defense spending, with allies reiterating their commitment to meeting the 2024 pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defense.
The summit also saw NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg credit Trump with increases in defense spending among NATO allies and touting the number of allies that have since put out specific plans to meet the 2% target.
But that and other commitments were largely overshadowed by Trump’s headline-grabbing comments and subsequent claims, overshadowing concrete US and NATO deliverables.
A missed opportunity ahead of Helsinki
Trump could have used his skills as a showman to project a united front ahead of his upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, as lawmakers in Washington had hoped Trump would do.
But instead, Trump’s every move amplified a narrative of Trump endlessly feuding with European allies – one he stoked just weeks earlier at the G7 summit amid increasing trade tensions with US allies.
Instead, as Trump left Brussels, his fellow world leaders were left fielding questions from reporters about Trump’s false claims that NATO members had agreed to ramp up defense spending quickly to “levels that they never thought of before.”
Even French President Emmanuel Macron – whose bromance with Trump was on display at the summit – did not hesitate to rebut Trump’s claims.
“The communique is clear,” Macron said. “It reaffirms a commitment to 2% in 2024. That is all.”