When Mr. Trump was running his extraordinary campaign for the presidency, the European Union was in a more urgent crisis, with the British voting to leave the bloc and anti-European Union parties making inroads in countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain.
But Europe seems to be emerging from its crisis, though problems persist, while it is Mr. Trump who seems to be at risk. He is facing serious challenges at home from the fallout of his campaign’s reported connections to Moscow and his firing of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, who was heading the Russia investigation.
“The bar for success at this meeting, which NATO is not even bothering to call a summit, is incredibly low,” said Derek Chollet, a former Obama administration assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs who is now at the German Marshall Fund. “This is an ambition-less summit; it’s about showing up. The people preparing it define success as Trump shows up, there’s no drama, the right things are said and everyone gets out cleanly.”
For NATO, facing “a president less engaged and less friendly to NATO than his predecessors, the emphasis is on getting the first impression right,” said Tomas Valasek, who recently was Slovakia’s ambassador to NATO and now directs Carnegie Europe, a Brussels-based research institution.
So, as NATO officials freely admit, there will be severe time limits, especially at a dinner Thursday night where 29 heads of state and government, plus NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, are all expected to speak — but only for less than five minutes each. Even at that, it could be as much as two and a half hours of speechifying. There is likely to be some discussion of Afghanistan and the fight against the Islamic State, but no decisions will be made.
Before the dinner, there will be a ceremonial unveiling of two monuments in front of NATO’s costly new building, which will be dedicated but is not yet ready for occupancy. That will give Mr. Trump a chance to say some public, scripted words that NATO officials, who asked not to be identified before the event in common with diplomatic practice, hope will contain the magic words “Article 5.”
As Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution has pointed out, “the crucial nuance” is that Mr. Trump has never said that “NATO’s original mission of countering Russian power in Europe is no longer obsolete.” Nor has he openly committed to the defense of the Baltic nations, for example, under Article 5, though both Vice President Mike Pence and Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, explicitly endorsed Article 5 at the Munich Security Conference in February.
NATO officials hope Mr. Trump’s chance will come when he unveils a piece of twisted metal from the World Trade Center, destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001, which was the only time the alliance ever invoked Article 5 — and that to defend the United States. More than 1,000 non-American NATO soldiers have died fighting in Afghanistan.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Europe’s most powerful figure, will unveil a chunk of the Berlin Wall, which came down in 1989, to symbolize how NATO kept the peace during the Cold War.
But bearing in mind Mr. Trump’s criticisms, the NATO meeting will feature two main points — an agreement to better specify how each member will meet the goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense by 2024, and some enhancement of the alliance’s role in counterterrorism, especially in the war against the Islamic State.
The last is slightly awkward for NATO, because the United States decided to command the war against the Islamic State, at the center of a global alliance, leaving out NATO.
NATO will not fight in the Middle East, but it is already training Iraqi troops there, and is likely to expand that training mission and discuss better intelligence cooperation against terrorism.
“To the extent there is substance,” Mr. Valasek said, “the allies are going out of their way to say they’ve heard him loud and clear, and will spend more on defense and focus more on counterterrorism.”
It is not a new message, he noted — fighting among allies about burden-sharing is as old as the alliance itself. “But there will be an effort to make sure Trump feels comfortable with the alliance and give him no reason to break with it,” Mr. Valasek said.
Nor will NATO leaders remind Mr. Trump that commitments to more military spending and counterterrorism were already underway before he took office, including the recent appointment of an assistant secretary general for intelligence and security.
R. Nicholas Burns, a former American ambassador to NATO, has some larger concerns, pointing out that “for any other president this would be a first trip to assume leadership of the West — but Trump is the first U.S. president whom Europeans don’t see that way.”
Mr. Trump’s “continued begrudging and backhanded support of NATO and his denigration of the E.U., and his positive comments about Brexit and Marine Le Pen annoy Europeans,” Mr. Burns said. “Trump needs to speak and act on this trip to inspire respect from his peers. They will be wondering if he is reliable, and can they trust his word, or is he handicapped by scandal.”
As important, Mr. Burns said, other NATO leaders wonder, “Will he stand up to Russia, especially at a time of increased Russian military activity in Ukraine?”
For the European Union, which Mr. Trump has disparaged but now says is fine with him if it makes the Europeans happy, the task will be easier. On Thursday morning, Mr. Trump is scheduled to have a brief meeting with Donald Tusk, the European Union council president, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission president, before meeting Mr. Macron for lunch.
“Trump’s views can be shaped,” Mr. Chollet said. “NATO leaders will try to convince him about the importance of NATO and that he’s winning. I believe it will all be fine.”
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