NATO summits are supposed to be boring. But next week’s meeting might come with more fireworks than the Fourth of July. Trump’s last big sitdown with European leaders, the G-7 in Montreal, ended with the instantly iconic photograph of Angela Merkel staring down a defiant Donald Trump, surrounded by frowning leaders doing their best to project grave concern. Acrimonious headlines are also likely to emerge next week, but they may obscure real action on significant policies. The story to watch isn’t Trump’s attempts to push other world leaders around. It’s what happens when migration politics force European leaders to reckon with growing nativism in their ranks.
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Trump has offered more bark than bite on NATO. Trump has repeatedly railed against Europeans for spending too little on NATO, but European allies agreed to increase their defense spending well before Trump took office. The primary ways Trump has undermined NATO have been indirect, like his suggestion that he wouldn’t defend all its allies from attack, and his cozying up to Russia, NATO’s chief antagonist. But the day-to-day policies of the administration have been supportive of NATO. As DefenseOne’s Kevin Baron points out, NATO is hard to kill anyway. “It outlasted Kennedy and Kruschev, Brezhnev and Reagan. It will outlast Trump and Putin and Merkel.”
Trump can declare “mission accomplished” on NATO spending if he wants. Even though NATO allies made a political commitment back in 2014—“not a legal document,” according to NATO’s secretary-general—to spend two percent of their GDP on defense by 2024, Trump will likely take credit for badgering Europeans to spend more. In fact, his administration already has. A. Wess Mitchell, the senior state department official for Europe, pointed out in a Heritage Foundation speech in June, “the alliance as a whole has increased defense spending by 5.1 percent ($14.4 billion)” since January, 2017.
Migration has become a continent-wide political challenge in Europe, even while actual migration has declined. Mitchell used his speech last month to declare the migrant crisis a major strategic interest for the U.S. in Europe, and an agenda item for the summit. But as the U.S. is focusing on the issue anew, irregular migrants are coming to Europe in vastly smaller numbers than just a few years ago. So far in 2018 (as of last month), fewer than 40,000 people have arrived by boat to Italy, Spain, and Greece; by the same time in 2015, at the height of the refugee-producing Syrian war, nearly 150,000 people had made the crossing, and more than a million irregular migrants would come in total over the course of the year. A good chunk of those who were allowed to remain have settled in Germany. Trump will arrive in this context to find a number of similarly-minded nativist politicians on the march around Europe.
Angela Merkel has found herself increasingly isolated among European leaders. Germany’s leader has had her tenure defined by migration. She has repeatedly muddled through political crises by adopting measures that allow her to maintain her political coalition without entirely giving in to anti-immigrant forces. The latest battle unfolded over the past several days. Merkel outmaneuvered members of her coalition who wanted Germany more closed to migrants by, in part, saying that the problem would be handled by the European Union as a whole.
The problem for Merkel is that European leaders are increasingly going in a nativist direction. Since the last NATO meeting, Italy’s government flipped from a center-left coalition to a hard-right one. The country’s new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, claims the country is under siege from migrants, saying, “We are under attack and we are asking NATO for a defensive alliance to protect us.” Many other European politicians also believe that their countries’ identities are threatened by migration. Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s new prime minister, told the New York Times, “A Europe without internal borders can only exist … if it has functioning external borders.” His government has reduced integration efforts while supporting the hardening of Europe’s external borders. In Hungary, Viktor Orban is resurgent after recently winning the election. “There is only one solution: closing off of the borders,” he told Merkel this week.
Merkel won’t get any help from Trump. In public and private, Trump has berated Merkel over her country’s border policies. That doesn’t necessarily hurt Merkel, whose supporters tend to rally when she’s attacked by Trump. But if Trump chooses to go after Merkel on these issues at the NATO summit, he’ll find plenty of receptive ears.
The combination of U.S. politics and the militarization of border control could be toxic for Europe. Cloaked in the bureaucracy of military alliances, NATO policy decisions can seem dryly technocratic. But charging NATO with stemming the flow of migrants into Europe, in order to stabilize European politics, would be a weighty decision. It would give the U.S. a bigger say in some of the most consequential decisions facing Europeans, who are already discussing very dramatic measures.
Europe increasingly wants refugees offshore, as I’ve written previously. This week, for example, Europeans considered a plan to create what they called “regional disembarkation centers” for migrants. What does that anodyne language actually mean? Orban has put it more plainly. He wants the EU to create a “giant refugee city” in Libya to house people who’d like to come to Europe. NATO’s involvement with that kind of policy is going to be debated next week, whether or not Trump gets along with his fellow leaders.
Even if Trump and Merkel clash, NATO is likely to continue strategies already in motion. In 2016, a previous generation of NATO leaders agreed to focus on cutting off the flow of people from Africa and the Middle East. That means stepping up naval deployments in the Mediterranean, projecting “stability” and propping up democratic institutions in neighboring countries, and working on counterterrorism in the region, among other efforts. This strategy is broadly popular among Europe’s leaders, and with Trump intensely focused on migration, the alliance is likely to double down on it.
As migration politics harden, NATO is a place where increasingly transatlantic ideas can be put into practice. There is tremendous pressure on European leaders to show action on migration. Even as tempers flare over Russia and budgets, NATO will be a tempting tool to address the crisis over migration.
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