Nato foreign ministers will this week meet to thrash out an agenda for the alliance’s upcoming 70th birthday summit, as member states seek to fend off potential clashes and quell fears that the gathering could “go off the rails”.
The ministers will hold talks on a tightly focused draft agenda for the December meeting, to be held in London, in what member state diplomats say is in part an effort to avoid the antagonism between US president Donald Trump and European countries that marred a leaders’ conclave in Brussels last year.
The summit comes at a time of rising tensions within the western alliance. Emmanuel Macron, French president, angered some fellow members this month when he declared the alliance was suffering “brain death” because of a lack of co-ordination among states, notably over the continuing incursion by Nato ally Turkey into Syria.
Jonathan Eyal, an expert on European security at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said the London meeting would “turn the concept of summits on its head”.
“At most of these events, despite all the differences, the idea is that getting all the leaders together in one room will help ease these conflicts,” he said. “But this time round, most governments seem to be approaching the event with trepidation.”
Some Nato country diplomats fear the meeting will do more harm than good if it falls into the disarray seen at the Brussels summit. At that meeting, Mr Trump lambasted European allies for failing to spend more on their militaries and publicly attacked Germany over its Nord Stream 2 project to pipe in Russian gas.
“People were traumatised,” one official said. “No one wants to repeat that experience — especially the Germans.”
Another member state diplomat acknowledged worries that the London event would “go off the rails. Definitely looking at what’s happening, there is the potential for problems”.
Draft plans for the London agenda so far include an early evening reception with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace on December 3, with no formal dinner afterwards.
Mr Trump and other leaders are due to hold a morning working session at the luxury Grove hotel — and golf course — north-west of central London. No lunch is scheduled, leaving leaders free for bilateral meetings — or a visit to the nearby The Making of Harry Potter studio tour or to do some Christmas shopping.
The out-of-city site has raised eyebrows among some Nato member state diplomats. UK officials insist — unlike The Grove’s own website — that the hotel is in London as it lies just inside the capital’s M25 ring road. Diplomats from other countries point out that the location will help lessen the chances of public protests against Mr Trump such as those that occurred during his state visit to Britain in June.
A main theme of the meeting will be burden-sharing by the 29 Nato member countries — a perennial preoccupation of Mr Trump’s, who described the alliance as “obsolete” while on the presidential campaign trail.
Summit organisers have noted that the US administration last week demanded a fivefold increase in South Korea’s contribution to hosting US troops in the country.
Nato hopes to pre-empt any criticism of the allies by producing new figures showing more member states are closing in on a target to spend the equivalent of 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence by 2024.
Alliance leaders are also due to discuss the global strategic environment, counter-terrorism efforts and outer space — another subject that has engaged Mr Trump, who last year announced the creation of a US space force.
Nato says the formal agenda will deliberately be brief, as the meeting has long been intended mainly as a commemoration of the organisation’s creation in 1949.
Mr Trump did not host a Washington event on April 4 that marked the 70th anniversary of the signing of the alliance’s foundational North Atlantic Treaty. Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, welcomed Nato foreign ministers instead.
“This is a meeting of leaders to commemorate our 70th anniversary,” a Nato official said of the UK event. “It’s not a full summit this time.”
The meeting will also bring Mr Macron face to face with central and eastern European leaders dismayed by his criticism of Nato, which they believe weakens the alliance in the eyes of Russia.
One summit organiser said the French president’s intervention had triggered mixed emotions in London. “On one hand, there’s the view this draws more attention to the meeting, which is what we want,” the person said. “On the other hand, it’s, ‘how dare he?’”
The UK’s December 12 general election is another wild card, with the possibility that Mr Trump — who has previously praised Boris Johnson, the Conservative prime minister, and criticised Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour party — might try to intervene in the election campaign.
As one European diplomat put it: “If Trump is in London that close to an election, what’s he going to say — not just about Nato, but everything else?”