Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 May 2019

Nato chief in full self-defence mode as Trump train rolls into Brussels

Jens Stoltenberg has been given a thankless task: presenting a united front, writes Jack Moore from the Nato summit

President Donald Trump is greeted by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg before a summit of heads of state and government at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Pool via Reuters 
President Donald Trump is greeted by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg before a summit of heads of state and government at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Pool via Reuters 

Jens Stoltenberg is like the owner of the china shop, looking at the bull on the street outside as it paws the ground, kicks back its legs and prepares to charge in.

The Nato secretary-general, shuttling around the alliance’s new headquarters for meetings, addresses and Q&As (he is speaking at least five times on Wednesday), is its very own political self-defence shield. Yet the verbal missiles he is trying to deflect are not coming from the usual quarters in Moscow, but Washington.

US President Donald Trump has launched a daily assault on the majority of his 28 Nato allies in the build-up to the summit in Brussels, accusing them of giving Washington an “unfair deal” and not paying their way in the alliance that stretches from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. The US spends around 3.5 per cent of its GDP on defence, triple that of Germany and much more than many other European Nato members.

But the alliance has heeded the long-held grievance in Washington, adding around $40 billion in additional funds on defence spending in the year leading up to the summit. Mr Stoltenberg has repeated and repeated the message that allies are doing more and will continue to do so in order to save the transatlantic bond. He re-utters how it is the biggest spending increase at Nato for a “generation”.

It is the idea that if you keep repeating something, people - in this case, President Trump - will begin to believe it. But for Mr Trump, the progress Mr Stoltenberg trumpets is still unsatisfactory. Standing next to the Nato chief, he said the $40 billion was still not enough to make American contributions fair for the US taxpayer.

Here in the Belgian capital, the secretary-general is in “full reassurance mode”, says Mathieu Boulègue, research fellow at UK based international affairs think tank Chatham House. “Not for allies but for the alliance itself.”

Nato will turn 70 years old next year and to see that anniversary with the remains of a major transatlantic car crash unresolved would be highly damaging to the alliance’s stature.

“It’s all about ‘we are on the same straight line in terms of unity,’” Mr Boulègue says of the Nato chief’s strategy. “We need that kind of message on that anniversary that we stand united nonetheless. Not because of enemies, but amongst ourselves.”

A two-time prime minister of Norway and trained economist, the man who has led the military alliance since 2014 is known as a champion of pragmatism with a sense of humour to boot. But he has had few laughs at the summit.


Read more from Jack Moore in Brussels:

Trump begins Nato Summit by calling Germany a captive of Russia

Nato's glistening new headquarters is home to an alliance with old problems

Nato Summit: The key issues on the table for alliance


When pressed on Mr Trump and his threats towards the alliance, particularly that he would only defend members who meet their contribution, Mr Stoltenberg comes up with the same lines - allies are spending more, but need to do more, and a strong Nato is good for Europe but the US too. At a press conference previewing the summit, he looked a stiff figure, shuffling through notes to ensure he uttered the right words, preventing any irritation of the erratic president before his arrival.

Their body language has said as much as their words. At a White House meeting in May, Mr Stoltenberg sat, legs crossed and his hands clasped on his knee in a polite, friendly manner, almost subservient to the president. Across from him, the American leader sat hunched over, legs wide, hands pointed between them in an aggressive posture.

It has been much the same in Brussels already. As they positioned for a photo-op ahead of their breakfast meeting on Wednesday, the Nato chief smiled as if standing with a friend. Mr Trump looked like a bulldog chewing a wasp, ready to unleash another outburst at any moment. As the pair shook hands at the opening ceremony, Mr Stoltenberg slapped Trump on the shoulder, appearing eager to be pally with the very man who has shaken the foundations of the alliance.

The feeling within Brussels is that Stoltenberg “has done a good job in the lead up” and Nato “allies are quite satisfied”, according to a senior European Parliament source.

Mr Stoltenberg is so well regarded here that in December 2017 he secured an extension to his four-year term, which was meant to end this year, until 2020.

But observers say that he has been tasked with presenting the alliance as something it is not - unified.

“Mr Stoltenberg has done his best, but it is a thankless task because in reality, Nato is very far from being united either in its purpose or in its fundamental values,” says Jolyon Howorth, the renowned European military scholar.

The alliance leader once admitted that, as an Oslo anti-war activist in the 1970s, he threw rocks at the US embassy to protest the American campaign in Vietnam. But, now, it is an American who is throwing stones at his own establishment.

And, like the new glass walls that surround alliance leaders, there is little the alliance chief has been able to do to stop Mr Trump’s missives smashing the facade of Nato unity.

Updated: July 11, 2018 06:04 PM