NATO Weighs Response as Trump Ponders Alliance’s Relevancy

(Bloomberg) -- NATO foreign ministers are seeking to reassure each other that President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy shift will not weaken Europe’s defense against Vladimir Putin as they meet for the first time since the U.S. election.

Representatives from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 28 countries, including outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, are pondering what they are calling the “transatlantic bond’’ during a two-day gathering in Brussels starting on Tuesday. Alarmed by Trump’s rhetoric during the election campaign, when he suggested the U.S. may not uphold its pledge to defend all NATO allies, the organization’s other governments are keen to establish the semblance of a united front before he takes office next month and to show that they are shouldering enough of the alliance’s burden.

“Questions have been raised about the transatlantic bond and the best way to answer those questions is to deliver greater cooperation between the European Union and NATO, especially now that the European Union is more focused on defense,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Tuesday as he arrived at the meeting. He said he expected Trump to attend a summit of the alliance’s leaders next year.

NATO Weighs Response as Trump Ponders Alliance’s Relevancy

Shares in the FTSE 350 Aerospace & Defense index returned 4.4 percent since Nov. 8 and are up nearly 25 percent from a low in February this year.

Trump’s election has thrown NATO into its biggest period of self-reflection for decades, compounding uncertainty already triggered by Brexit, a surge in populism in Europe and a newly assertive Russia. Eastern European countries, particularly those that share land borders with Russia, have relied on the U.S.’s commitment to NATO, especially its underlying principle that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all of them, as Putin has moved troops and weapons in their direction.

Kerry, attending his final NATO ministerial meeting, sought to be reassuring. “We will stay deeply involved,” he said. “We need to come together to make sure we have a strong Europe and a strong NATO. The real effort today is to show how important NATO is.”

In parallel to casting doubts about the effectiveness of the western alliance, Trump used his electoral campaign to praise Putin, whom NATO has accused of helping separatists in Ukraine. The warring factions in the former Soviet republic are violating the country’s cease fire on a daily basis, Stoltenberg said.

“We will continue to have a dual approach to Russia,” the NATO leader said. “We need defense and dialog, not defense or dialog. We do not want a new cold war; we do not seek confrontation,” he said.

European leaders said they weren’t prejudging the Trump administration before it takes office in late January. “We have to wait for acts and facts,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders.

During his campaign, Trump called the coalition “obsolete,” and in July he told the New York Times that the U.S. would only defend NATO allies if they “have fulfilled their obligations to us” -- a criticism of low military spending by fellow members. The only time NATO has invoked the so-called collective defense clause was to aid the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks.

While ministers won’t get a clear idea about the U.S. president-elect’s foreign-policy strategy at the meeting, they may agree on a plan to try to assuage Trump’s doubts about the alliance. That may come in the form of further commitments to increase defense spending and a pledge for the alliance to take on a stronger role in tackling terrorism.

“It’s very important that everyone put their money where their mouth is and steps up,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said.

Only four of the European Union’s 23 NATO countries have met their pledge to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, according to the organization’s figures, with the U.S. contributing more than 70 percent of the alliance’s overall defense expenditure.

“We must spend more, but military strength is not everything,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.