As United States President Donald Trump prepares for what many reasonably fear could be a diplomatic train wreck at the July 11-12 Nato summit in Brussels, the odd truth is that when it comes to transatlantic security, the president actually has a pretty good story to tell.

In the past 18 months, the US and its Nato partners have continued to lift their game, bolstering their collective capabilities aligned against the Russian threat, increasing their defence resources and developing new initiatives to address Nato’s operational shortcomings.

There’s a lot to commend. By agreeing last month to develop a substantial Nato force to deploy by air, land and sea within 30 days, the allies (who will formalise the agreement at the summit) took a big step towards expanding and strengthening their reinforcement capabilities. The alliance will also augment its ability to make decisions in critical areas by establishing two new military commands — in the United States and Germany — focusing on maritime security in the Atlantic and military mobility in Europe, so forces can get to the fight with fewer logistical hurdles. Nato will also assume a more substantial training mission in Iraq and elevate cyberthreats in its planning and operations.

There’s even good news on defence spending: Almost every ally is doing more, albeit not at the same pace. However much grumbling one hears, the trend is headed in the right direction. And while past US presidents have also called for European partners to increase their military budgets, Nato diplomats concede that Trump’s singular obsession with this issue has made a difference.

The summit should therefore be a moment to take a victory lap by enshrining these decisions and establishing a road map for the future. Instead, for the Europeans, the measure of success at the meeting has been reduced to getting through two days relatively unscathed by a presidential rant or tweetstorm. So the news in recent days about letters from Trump berating European allies to spend more on defence is an ominous sign.

What makes this so puzzling is that the same president who rarely hesitates to take credit or to claim that something is successful without much supporting evidence — as with his assertions of instant success with North Korea — seems so determined not to boast of victory in this instance, though there’s plenty to crow about. Some of the problem is that, apart from the issue of European defence spending, Trump has appeared uninterested in the details of military mobility or command structure. The Nato agenda has been driven by other corners of the administration, particularly in the Pentagon. One wonders if Trump is even aware that this year his Defence Department released a strategy that prioritised fortifying security alliances such as Nato.

Presidential temper tantrum

Now Pentagon planners are as worried as the Europeans that the commander-in-chief will spoil their success. The trouble might take the form of a presidential temper tantrum or a refusal to sign the summit communique (as with the recent Group of Seven fiasco), or a Trump proposal that Putin be allowed to join Nato summits as Russian presidents have in the past, or a threat to pull US forces out of Germany (as the Pentagon has been asked to look into).

That highlights another problem: From Trump’s perspective, America’s security approach to Europe has not been disruptive enough. The fact that the positive changes in Nato today stem from summits held during the previous administration is probably another reason Trump is reluctant to claim success. If the president wanted to herald a bipartisanship achievement, this is where he could.

But don’t hold your breath. Trump seems more interested in projecting dominance over his European partners or punishing them for “cheating” the US over the years. That Nato is a unique asset to America’s global power seems a matter of indifference to him — after all, how many security allies do China and Russia have?

Four years ago, in Wales, Nato leaders met at a moment of great uncertainty. Just months after Russia’s war against Ukraine had started and as the Daesh crisis exploded, there were many concerns about the ability of the US and Europe to face these twin challenges. Yet, the response must largely be considered a success: Putin has been stymied and Daesh’s “caliphate” was routed. As the Nato leaders plotted their course, no one imagined where the greatest threat to the alliance’s unity would come from.

— Washington Post

Derek Chollet is executive vice-president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former US assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs.