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NATO alliance discusses Trump-proofing on 75th anniversary

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BRUSSELS — The North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated its 75th birthday on Thursday, older, arguably wiser and freshly attuned to its own mortality.

At a ceremony at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, officials and diplomats feted an alliance that is now bigger — at 32 members — and more relevant — thanks to Russia — than it has been in years. To mark the moment, NATO shipped in its founding charter, the Washington Treaty, from its home in the United States.

But toasts about unity were in many cases undercut by the conversations on the margins of the party, most notably about the possible return to the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump, a man who appears eager to undermine the treaty — and NATO’s existence — by questioning the collective security provisions at its core.

Trump’s recent suggestion that he would encourage Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to an ally who wasn’t meeting defense spending guidelines has deeply rattled NATO and renewed fear that Trump’s rhetoric is a serious threat to the alliance as it seeks to support Ukraine and deter an aggressive, revanchist Russia.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, the watchword in Brussels has been “Trump-proofing,” but discussions about how to actually protect NATO and its plans from Trump have been fraught. Among those who believe in NATO’s mission, there is deep fear about what comes next.

“This alliance for 75 years has done exactly what it intended to do, which is improve the collective security of its members,” said retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe. “If there is a Trump administration, we risk losing all that.”

For now, the alliance is trying to limit the potential damage by convincing Trump and his supporters that NATO is worth preserving. At 75th anniversary events this week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg took pains to mention “burden-sharing” at every opportunity — a not-so-subtle nod to U.S. voices calling for Europe to do more.

“I don’t believe in America alone, just as I don’t believe in Europe alone,” he said Thursday. “We are stronger and safer together.”

The alliance is also discussing ways to insulate NATO’s role in Ukraine from American politics. On Wednesday, Stoltenberg put forward a proposal to more deeply involve NATO in the activities of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, the U.S.-led body coordinating military aid to Ukraine, and potentially muster a military aid package upwards of $100 billion over five years.

The proposal sends a “clear message” that the alliance is “united in wanting to institutionalize a more robust framework for supporting Ukraine over the longer term,” said Karen Donfried, senior fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center and former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, in an email. But, she added, a lot depends on how the negotiations proceed.

The idea behind the plan is to secure long-term military assistance and support for Ukraine regardless of who holds the U.S. presidency, to “shield it from the winds of political change,” as one NATO diplomat put it. However, while NATO members converged on some aspects of the proposal, significant differences remain and discussions are in the early stages.

Some allies want to give NATO much more control of the group’s responsibilities — which currently relies on U.S. leadership — given European concerns that a Trump presidency would render it impotent. Others view the contact group as one of the most successful ad hoc structures put together by the West in recent years and espouse an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, said two officials familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

On Wednesday, John Kirby, White House national security communications adviser, said he was hesitant to get ahead of “preliminary” talks between NATO allies, but suggested the U.S. is not particularly interested in surrendering its leadership.

“The contact group has been very, very effective,” he told reporters. “We’re going to continue to lead and convene it. And we know that our leadership of that contact group is valued, it’s important.”

Keeping the contact group outside of NATO proper has helped ease concern about escalation with Russia. Many countries have gotten over that fear, convinced that Russia will do what it wants regardless. But changing the group’s status still makes some countries nervous.

There were also immediate differences of views on the ambitious $100 billion proposal from Stoltenberg. Many allies, appearing surprised by the figure, have been asking whether existing bilateral aid being doled out would count toward the $100 billion commitment, or if this would be an entirely different commitment. So far, NATO has not offered a clear answer.

“There are different ways of ensuring that our support is less dependent on voluntary short-term offers and more on long-term NATO commitments, and that we have a stronger organization that creates a more robust framework for our support,” Stoltenberg said Wednesday. “And this includes security assistance but also training, and also financing.”

Camille Grand, who served as NATO’s assistant secretary general for defense investment from 2016 to 2022 and is now a distinguished policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the $100 billion figure was less of a concrete plan than a form of strategic communications — that is, an effort to say “let’s think big and act about Ukraine.”

NATO is raising its hand to lead, he said, potentially with an eye to the E.U.’s effort to lead on defense. But that does not mean countries will raise the money, or that a future Trump administration could not spoil the plan.

“If the next administration decides to pull the plug on the whole thing, it will be complicated for the other allies to say, ‘Hey, you can’t pull the plug on the whole thing, we don’t agree.’”

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