Secret meetings, private threats and a massive arms race: How the world is preparing for Trump

In 2016, no one in the world was ready for President Trump. America’s NATO allies aren’t making the same mistake this time.

Jul 8, 2024 - 01:28

In Brussels, NATO officials have devised a plan to lock in long-term military support for Ukraine so that a possible Trump administration can’t get in the way.

In Ankara, Turkish officials have reviewed the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 policy road map for clues into Donald Trump’s designs on Syria.

In Atlanta, Austin and Lincoln, Nebraska, top ministers from Germany and Canada have met with Republican governors to shore up relations on the American right.

And in Washington, Trump’s return is the dominant topic at monthly breakfast meetings of ambassadors from European countries. At one of those meetings, the top envoy from one country asked his colleagues whether they were engaged in a fool’s errand.

“Can we really prepare for Trump?” this person asked, according to another top diplomat. “Or do we rather have to wait and see what the new reality would look like?”

Folly or not, the preparations are underway.

More than six months before the next American president takes office, there is already an extraordinarily advanced effort across the NATO alliance, and far beyond, to manage a potential transfer of power in America. With President Joe Biden listing badly in his bid for reelection, many allies anticipate that at this time next year they will be dealing with a new Trump administration — one defined by skepticism toward Europe, a strident strain of right-wing isolationism and a hard resolve to put confronting China above other global priorities.

In the run-up to this week’s NATO summit in Washington, POLITICO and the German newspaper Welt embarked together on a reporting project to assess how the world is preparing for Trump’s possible return to the White House; reporters for both publications interviewed more than 50 diplomats, lawmakers, experts and political strategists in NATO nations and elsewhere. Many of those people were granted anonymity to speak about sensitive matters of diplomacy and international security.

What emerged from this reporting was a picture of a world already bending to Trump’s will and scrambling to inoculate itself against the disruptions and crises that he might instigate.

In many respects NATO member states feel far more confident of their ability to handle Trump than they did when he first came to power seven and a half years ago as a total amateur on the world stage. That is in part because these countries are laying the groundwork now to manage his political resurrection.

Their preparations fall into three categories.

First, there is extensive personal outreach to Trump and his advisers, in the hope of building relationships that will help minimize conflict.

Second, there are policy shifts aimed at pleasing Trump and his political coalition, chiefly by soothing Trump’s complaints about inadequate European defense spending.

Third, there are creative diplomatic and legal measures in the works to armor NATO priorities against tampering by a Trump administration.

Taken together, it starts to look like a plausible strategy for managing the turbulence of a Trump-led world. Still, even the NATO leaders driving this approach acknowledge that much of this project may ultimately be at the mercy of Trump’s individual whims.

“Of course, the biggest challenge is we don’t know — and I think nobody knows, exactly — what he will do,” said one diplomat from a NATO country.

When Trump first came to office, the West was in a state of relative calm, and U.S. allies mostly hoped that they could wait out an American political meltdown for four years. Their thinking is different this time, now that it is clear that Trumpism is no passing fad — and the NATO alliance is confronting far more immediate threats to European security.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no widespread panic this time about Trump withdrawing the U.S. from NATO, as he has threatened in the past. But if allies do not see that as a likely scenario, the alliance is still in an anxious mood — a state of trepidation only sharpened by the rising power of right-wing NATO skeptics in France and elsewhere on the continent.

Camille Grand, a former NATO assistant secretary general and French defense official, said the alliance was approaching Trump far differently now than it did in 2017.

“Last time, it was much easier because there was no war,” said Grand, who is aligned with French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist coalition. “Now, we are in an environment where the conversation is really, really different.”

Trump Politics is Personal

A scant two weeks before NATO’s leaders were set to descend on Washington for the summit, a rumor tore through the diplomatic world: Trump had a plan to bring peace to Ukraine.

The art of this deal was said to rest on a brazen threat: If Vladimir Putin refused to negotiate an end to the war, the U.S. would flood Ukraine with even more weapons. And if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy refused to sit at a negotiating table with Russia, the U.S. would withdraw its copious military support.

There was one big problem. The plan was being pitched not by Trump himself, but by several of his many allies and self-described surrogates circulating through political and diplomatic circles — each purporting to speak for the former president, and in turn advertising a direct line back to him. Upon closer scrutiny, it became clear that there was no secret, Trump-approved blueprint to end the war.

As the election has approached, it has become a full-time mission for U.S. allies to parse who is an authentic Trump emissary and who is a pretender. One embassy staffer confirmed that they had been in contact with several people claiming to speak for Trump, “but it’s not always clear how close they are to him.”

But, the staffer said, “we need to take the meetings.”

The result has been a frantic quest for access to the people closest to Trump — and to Trump himself.

“It’s a race to be the last person to speak to him before he makes a decision,” said one European defense official.

One lesson that American allies drew from the first Trump administration is that personal relationships are paramount with the former president and the people closest to him. Trump formed warm bonds as president with an eclectic range of leaders, from Shinzo Abe and Jair Bolsonaro to Boris Johnson and Kim Jong Un, all of whom used that direct personal link to their own advantage.

Since Trump locked up the Republican nomination, Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, and Japan’s former prime minister, Taro Aso, have paid respects to him in person. So has David Cameron, the former British foreign secretary and prime minister, who used a visit to Mar-a-Lago to make the case to Trump for supporting the war effort in Ukraine.

Overtures are underway to other quarters of the Republican Party: François-Philippe Champagne, a Canadian minister helping lead preparation for the U.S. election, has met with Republican governors including Henry McMaster of South Carolina and Jim Pillen of Nebraska, emphasizing international stability as a shared concern, according to a person briefed on the meetings. Last fall, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visited Texas to meet with Gov. Greg Abbott, a powerful Trump supporter, making a friendly overture but also airing her stark disagreement with Abbott on abortion rights.

In recent weeks, several diplomats from NATO member states quietly traveled to Washington to meet with conservative academics and people associated with think tanks that they believed could have some influence on Trump’s policy. The meetings seemed to be productive, said one ambassador. But there is an air of contingency around them.

“We don’t know if the people we meet will actually still be there if Trump is elected president,” said one NATO official during a conversation at headquarters in Brussels.

Perhaps the most ostentatious outreach to Trump and the MAGA coalition came this spring from David Lammy, Britain’s shadow foreign secretary at the time, who was appointed the U.K.’s top diplomat last week after elections there. During a visit to Washington in May, Lammy met with Trump allies and MAGA luminaries, including Sens. Lindsey Graham and J.D. Vance. In public remarks, Lammy said Trump’s criticism of NATO had often been “misunderstood,” and that the former president mainly wanted Europe to spend more on defense.

This was a dramatic U-turn for Lammy, who previously described Trump as a racist and a “woman-hating, neo-Nazi-sympathizing sociopath.” But his Washington tour seemed to have a clear purpose: to open the way for a relationship with Trump in government — and to make sure British voters knew he was doing it.

His meeting with the Trump campaign emerged from quiet, persistent outreach, and Chris LaCivita, Trump’s senior campaign adviser, rearranged his schedule to meet with Lammy at the offices of the RNC.

It was a breezy conversation, according to people familiar with the exchange. Lammy explained his role as shadow foreign secretary, a position with no equivalent in the American system, and talked about how he has family ties to the United States. LaCivita briefed him on the state of the Trump campaign.

Minutes after the meeting concluded, stories about it hit the London Times and the Daily Mail, startling the Trump campaign.

One Trump adviser, recognizing the point of the conversation was for the Brits to be able to say they had the conversation, marveled that Labour had leaked the news before Lammy even left the building: “They had this whole thing pre-written.”

Lammy’s MAGA-friendly tour frustrated some center-left leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, including in the White House. One British diplomatic figure said there were senior Democrats who were “very, very upset with David,” particularly given his warm relationships with Democrats including Barack Obama. Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said the Biden White House had been unconcerned.

This British diplomat said Lammy’s trip was, on its own terms, a mission accomplished.

“In the world of the embassy and Foreign Office, Lammy was seen to have done a good job, and that it was a smart move for Labour to hedge their bets in case they have to deal with a Trump administration in six months or so,” the diplomat said.

Money, Money, Money

If much of Trump’s transatlantic agenda seems fluid and impulse-driven, he has been entirely consistent on one point: He wants European countries to spend far, far more on their own defense.

Increasingly, Trump is getting his way.

Europe has good reasons to increase defense spending that have nothing to do with Trump. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 shattered the illusion in many European capitals that Putin could be treated as a quasi-friend, or that his imperial ambitions could be contained to Crimea and a few marginal precincts of Eastern Europe.

But the Russian threat is all the more terrifying for Europe because of Trump’s ambivalence about NATO’s commitments to collective security. The former president has railed openly against defense-spending laggards in Europe and elsewhere, venting frustration that so much of the world counts on American taxpayers to foot the bill for foreign security needs. Earlier this year, Trump said he would give Russia free rein to “do whatever the hell they want” to NATO allies that do not meet their defense-spending obligations.

In a June speech, Trump deplored the ongoing stream of American money into the war effort in Ukraine. “It never ends,” he railed.

Much of the NATO alliance has shifted toward making defense investments aimed simultaneously at deterring Russia and pleasing Trump. Twenty-three of the 32 NATO member states are assessed to spend 2 percent or more of their GDP on defense, meeting a goal outlined for the alliance in 2014.

Jens Stoltenberg, the outgoing secretary general, boasted of these figures at a meeting in Washington weeks before the summit, and is expected to make the same point prominently at the gathering. According to several NATO officials involved in internal discussions, the alliance’s strategy is to provide Trump with a message to his own voters letting himself take credit for making the alliance fairer and more effective.

Some countries have recently outlined newly ambitious plans to expand their military capacity. In April, Norway unveiled a 12-year plan to spend $152 billion on defense, much of it focused on production of rockets and artillery.

Romania, which signed a $4 billion deal to acquire Patriot missiles under the Trump administration, is helping expand what will soon become NATO’s largest military base in Europe. (A return of Trump is “not on the list of … major concerns” for the country, a Romanian official said.)

In Poland, which spends more than 4 percent of its GDP on defense, the most of any NATO country, some officials are pressing the rest of Europe to keep up. Duda, the right-wing president who is friendly with Trump, has called on alliance members to hit a 3 percent spending target.

Pawel Kowal, chair of the Polish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview that the most important preparation for his country and others was these investments.

“Without question, Europe must take care of its own security, finally take the Russian threat seriously, help Ukraine and arm itself, including developing a common air defense,” said Kowal, who is also the Polish government’s Ukraine envoy.

“Vladimir Putin must think at least three times before he weighs an attack on NATO,” Kowal said. “If Europe is stronger, there is a good chance that we will also get along better with Trump.”

Not all American allies have responded with similar enthusiasm to the demands of the moment, however.

Two of the wealthiest countries in the NATO alliance, Italy and Canada, are far from meeting the 2 percent threshold even as the security demands on NATO continue to increase. So are several smaller allies, including Spain, Portugal and Belgium.

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced an unusually open and bipartisan reproach from the United States in May when two dozen Republican and Democratic senators wrote him a letter saying they were “profoundly disappointed” that Canada was going to “fail to meet its obligations” to NATO. Trudeau acknowledged there was “more to do” for Canada’s defense, but for years has made no major policy shift in that direction.

The political pressure on these countries and others is likely to grow in the coming months, not just from Trump but also from their neighbors. Riho Terras, a former commander of the Estonian Defense Forces who is now a center-right member of the European Parliament, put it bluntly.

“I am not afraid of Trump withdrawing from Europe,” Terras said. “I am afraid that Europe is not willing to spend more money on defense.”

Finnish Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen, speaking to POLITICO at the end of an EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg, said Europe could not sway the American election — but it could make itself “a very attractive partner to the United States.”

“We should certainly constantly concentrate on issues where we do have influence and that is building our own defense and deterrence as strongly as possible,” Valtonen said, adding: “And that’s, I guess, what also Mr. Trump has been calling for.”

Trump-Proof vs. Trump-Compatible

At a mid-June meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, members of the alliance agreed in principle on a plan to shift control of NATO’s support for Ukraine. Up to this point, the United States has taken the lead in organizing military aid through a 300-person unit known as the Security Assistance Group-Ukraine, housed at an American military office in Wiesbaden, Germany.

Stoltenberg proposed an alternative configuration: transferring responsibility for aid management to NATO itself, and especially to European partner states. In theory, this would make the administration of aid “Trump-proof,” as some diplomats say. The final decision is expected at the NATO summit in Washington.

If implemented, this plan would gradually shift control of aid to a group of 200 NATO soldiers in the Belgian city of Mons — a group that would continue working with the United States, but under the NATO flag.

Schemes like this one, devised to blunt the impact of Trump’s edicts on shared NATO priorities, might be sorely tested if Trump were to come back to power.

There are others like it, not just in Europe but also in Asia and even in Washington, where last December a bipartisan majority in the House and Senate voted to make it impossible for a president to withdraw from NATO without strong support from Congress. It was a measure plainly aimed at handcuffing Trump or a future president who shares his views.

The State Department recently acknowledged that another American ally, South Korea, was pressing for an early renewal of a deal that helps pay for the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country. The current deal does not expire until 2025, but renegotiating it with Trump could be much more difficult, given his frequent complaints about the cost of American support for South Korea.

Harry Harris, the retired admiral and former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said the country appeared to be “hedging against a possible Trump 2 administration — they’ve seen this movie and it was very painful.”

But it is not clear how much these formal arrangements might really serve to limit Trump if he were wielding the power of the presidency.

For all the determination in some European capitals to approach a second Trump presidency with relative optimism, it is also impossible to escape the plain reality that no one on the continent really knows how chaotic a second Trump term might be.

He is unlikely to be tempered by defense secretaries and cabinet officials similar to those who served during his first term — Cold War traditionalists and military veterans such as Mike Pompeo, H.R. McMaster, Jim Mattis and John Kelly — who had spent their careers working within traditional foreign policy structure alongside allies.

Some Trump advisers have unnerved Europe by speaking with ambivalence about America’s commitment to defending NATO allies with its full military might. Elbridge Colby, a former top Pentagon official who is seen as a contender to lead the National Security Council in a second Trump administration, has rattled allies repeatedly by saying that the U.S. cannot overextend itself in Europe at the expense of countering China.

In an interview, Colby indicated there were limits to what the U.S. might do to counter certain kinds of Russian aggression, like an attack on the Baltic states.

“The NATO treaty does not oblige us to send our whole military. Henry Kissinger supposedly once said that alliances are not suicide contracts,” Colby said, adding that he was concerned about leaving the U.S. “vulnerable to a knockout blow by China.”

Hannah Neumann, a member of the European Parliament representing Germany’s Green Party, said Europeans also should keep in mind that Trump would be in his last term as president if he were reelected — and could be even more volatile the second time around. Neumann, who sits on a subcommittee governing security and defense, suggested that Europe could not take the risk of complacency.

“He has announced 100,000 foolish things. He is a loose cannon,” Neumann said of Trump. “It would be naive not to think about scenarios and prepare for some things lying ahead of us, in case Trump were to weaken or even leave NATO.”

During a spring visit to Washington, one Trump adviser offered a preview of what the smash-it-up approach might look like, delivering a blistering tirade about European defense to Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister and NATO secretary general, and Fabrice Pothier, the CEO of Rasmussen’s international consulting firm.

On a phone call, Pothier recalled, this person uncorked “a kind of Trumpian rant about the European allies not spending enough,” naming specific countries that were slacking on defense.

“That person kept asking Anders: How will you punish them? How will you punish them?” Pothier recalled, adding: “International relations don’t really work like that.”

Then, he acknowledged they might work that way soon enough — and allies had to adapt to that reality.

“In one line, I would say: Don’t try to Trump-proof yourself, but try to make yourself Trump-compatible,” Pothier advised. “I’m not buying the Trump-proof approach, which I think worked relatively well the first time. I think today we are facing a different kind of Trump.”

Jonathan Martin, Alexander Burns, Alex Ward, Rosa Prince, Eli Stokols, Carolina Druten, Stefan Boscia and Phelim Kine contributed to this report.

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