By Steven Erlanger, chief diplomatic correspondent in Europe for The New York Times
NATO summit meetings were once ritualistic events, with the member nations assembling to proclaim that the alliance had never been stronger and pledging to work together on the security issues of the day.
In the Trump era, however, they have become anxiety-producing confrontations where the main object is to avoid long-term damage to the alliance. For the allies, that has meant figuring out how to handle President Trump, who arrives on Tuesday for this year’s summit meeting having already sent letters to some NATO member countries pressuring them to expand their military budgets.
The allies see the President Trump of 2018 as different from the one who came to NATO last year — more aggressive, less willing to be moderated or guided by his senior staff and cabinet secretaries, more confident, especially after his meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in his own diplomatic prowess. They worry about his propensity for off-the-cuff pronouncements, like calling for abandoning sanctions against Russia or suspending NATO military exercises.
The allies believe they have a decent story to tell about military initiatives to deter Russia, and they are expected to emphasize the considerable progress they have made in reaching spending targets, increasing spending on equipment and improving the readiness of their forces. And they have learned from the last year that handling Mr. Trump with kid gloves only seems to prompt his contempt.
That being said, the Europeans will still be operating at a disadvantage, analysts say. “They’re caught between dependency and outrage,” said Jan Techau of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “Outrage means to push back, it’s a question of dignity, but the strategic dependency is real, so you have to endure it,” he said.
Nevertheless, he favors some pushback against Mr. Trump’s expected criticisms. “We need to stick together, and I’d nominate one of the Europeans to speak in clear terms to Trump.”
Douglas Lute, a retired American general and former ambassador to NATO, said that Mr. Trump “would be true to form: He isn’t going to fly to Brussels and be a different person, but he’ll be disruptive and play to his base.”
Mr. Trump argues that NATO countries have committed to spending 2 percent of GDP by 2024, and “owe” money to NATO. But countries decide their own military budgets, and at the Wales NATO meeting of 2014, they only committed to increase military spending and “aim to move toward” the 2 percent guideline by 2024.
“The spending pledge is a 10-year program and we’re just in the fourth year of it,” Mr. Lute said, adding that European allies had already increased their spending by $87 billion a year, “and that’s real money.”
The allies cannot control Mr. Trump’s messages or Twitter outbursts, but they can control their own, analysts say. Preparing for Mr. Trump is mostly about strategic messaging in the room — what he is told — and ensuring the right strategic messaging outside the room, the official said, especially with Mr. Trump scheduled to meet the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, in Helsinki next week.
A core element of deterrence is making it clear that the political will exists to use military force if NATO is challenged — a more difficult sell when the United States president appears to be more in conflict with his NATO allies than with Mr. Putin, the leader of the nation NATO is intended to deter.
As one indication of how to handle the criticism, the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who Mr. Trump derided as “dishonest and weak” at the disastrous Group of 7 meeting last month, and who received one of the more aggressive pre-summit letters from Mr. Trump about increasing military spending, is visiting Latvia before coming to Brussels.
Although Mr. Trump’s letter did not mention it, Canada took the leading role in Latvia in one of NATO’s new “spearhead” commands, which are based in the three Baltic nations and Poland and aimed at Russia. Ottawa has also committed to increasing its defense budget by more than 70 percent over the next decade.
Germany, too, promises to increase military spending to 1.5 percent of its economy by 2024. While not the 2 percent level, Berlin will argue that will still be more than any other NATO country other than the United States. Mr. Trump, who appears to have a special animus toward Germany, believes that Berlin has developed a vibrant social system and thriving export-driven economy unfairly and on the back of the United States, by not spending enough on defense.
Germany is currently spending 1.24 percent of gross domestic product on its military, which will rise to 1.31 percent next year, an increase of $5 billion to $43 billion, a sizable if still insufficient increase, said Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee.
The best answer to Mr. Trump is “to accept he has a point, and respond by displaying more European strength and enhancing European defense in cooperation with NATO,” Mr. Röttgen said. As a whole, the alliance’s European members spend about $200 billion a year.
“That’s a lot, but it’s cost inefficient, militarily ineffective and lacks political weight and impact,” he said. “We need to strengthen the European pillar of NATO.”
The allies are happy to have Mr. Trump take credit, some of which he deserves, for the significant increase in alliance military spending, grabbing victory from the jaws of victory, as one NATO participant said.
But allies are also concerned that Mr. Trump sees no political benefit in a calm meeting, and that he will not only be loudly critical, but may also try to bargain American troop strength in Europe for increased military spending by others.
That might entail a threat to reduce American spending on the European Reassurance Initiative to improve force readiness, while challenging allies to make up the difference, said Tomas Valasek, a former Slovak ambassador to NATO and now director of Carnegie Europe.
“To be honest, no one really knows how Trump will act during the summit,” Mr. Valasek said. “His unpredictability is not a byproduct but a design feature — he likes it that way. He comes to this meeting not only prepared to go into confrontation with his peers and allies but with his own staff.”
Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, said that the Europeans should respond by telling Mr. Trump that “NATO is a success story, with increased military spending across the board and two new commands.”
But another fear, he and others said, is that Mr. Trump will seek to bargain — “to conflate trade and security,” as he has already done with South Korea and Japan. Europeans cannot accept making collective security transactional or dependent on actions on tariffs or specific spending targets in a relationship that is mutually beneficial, Mr. Niblett said.
“It can feel like a protection racket, trading security for economic return,” he said, especially as “he then goes off to see Putin.”
That meeting worries NATO allies, because Mr. Putin is expected to flatter Mr. Trump and play on the American president’s notion of himself as a great negotiator in face-to-face meetings. They cite the Singapore summit with Mr. Kim, when Mr. Trump emerged to announce the cancellation of longstanding military exercises with South Korea — without consulting or informing either the South Korean government or the Pentagon.
They worry that Mr. Trump might unilaterally cancel planned NATO exercises, in particular Trident Juncture, a large one planned for late October, and Anakonda, for November, to practice the defense of Poland.
They worry he will even announce the withdrawal of some American troops from Germany, though Congress would have something to say about that. They fear he will abandon sanctions on Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine. And bizarrely enough, they express hope that Mr. Trump’s hard-line national security adviser, John R. Bolton, will restrain him from rash acts.
“Putin wants to deepen the schism between NATO, Europe and America,” Mr. Niblett said. Mr. Trump’s world is one of interests, no allies, with Europe a competitor and “NATO worse than Nafta,” as Mr. Trump has averred, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement. That world fits Mr. Putin’s aims.
“Even if Trump simply says that he and Putin have agreed ‘to continue the dialogue,’ that will put the cat among the pigeons among European allies,” he said.
Ivan Krastev, director of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, said that for the Europeans, “it’s hard to imagine a world without allies.” But Mr. Trump is a disrupter, he said.
“In the world of Trump, allies don’t exist — allies are like ex-wives, who only make moral and financial claims. Disrupters don’t need allies.”
The New York Times