Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Brussels Summit, 2018: A Toddler Tantrum

Heaps of helos flew over--at least five of these squadrons
This picture also shows the big NATO building and
how not so close we are to it.
I spent today at the NATO Engages Expert Forum that was near but not at the summit.  We were in a building/tent beyond the parking lot, so they had to shuttle various leaders from NATO's big shiny new building that we were not allowed to besmirch.  Like the last time, we had a bunch of panels--many with politicians and officials, some with experts.

What was different this time?
  • The room was not nearly as deep blue.
  • The room was set up like theatre in the round, which meant I mostly saw people's backs.
  • Instead of the "cool, let's see how much progress we make vibe," we had a "$Q@#$@$, do we have to focus only 2% and burden-sharing, as opposed to NATO doing stuff" vibe.  Oh, and a kind of exhausted parent of a toddler kind of feel.  
  • The panels were different from the past (see below)
Because, yeah, Trump colored everything.  He started his day ranting about Germany and being mean to the super nice (and surprisingly humorous Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg).

So, how did it go?

The first panel was far more interesting than expected: German Minister of Defense von der Leyen was feisty and dynamic as she had to put up with a pretty hostile Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Cavusoglu with the Polish MFA Czaputowicz being pretty meh.  Things got hot when the Turkish MFA explained that Turkey bought Russian missiles since Germany abandoned Turkey and said that Italy was a real ally, indicating Germany was not so much of one.  So, not the political niceties and superblandness I was expected.

Closest I have ever been to PMJT
The second panel was super-Canadian: PM Justin Trudeau, enthusiastic head-nodder MFA Freeland and dry MinDef  Saijan came out and were wildly popular.  Why?  Because here were folks who loved NATO in a crowd of NATO lovers.  Trudeau announced a "new" Canadian mission--leading a NATO training mission in Iraq with 250 or so troops and helos.  It was "new" and not new as Canada already had that number of folks there doing training.  The difference? Training the Iraqi trainers of the next generation of Iraqi army rather than training Kurds to fight.  So, probably less Special Ops types.  Oh, and to lead the NATO effort.  Canada has much experience in training the trainers from Afghanistan.  So, a contribution but not a radically new one.  The three of them were mostly boringly nice for the first 25 minutes, particularly as they got softball questions from grateful Latvians (for the Canadian persistent presence there, that was part of the Warsaw Summit agreements).  Then the Macedonian Foreign (might have been Defense) Minister asked if Macedonia could be a member, and the Canadians were enthused.  It finished with Trudeau doing a very enthusiastic and dynamic call for countries to focus more on the doing (which Canada does) than the spending (which Canada doesn't do as much) and making a difference.  The Germans loved this since they have a similar "enough with the 2% crap" message.  The crowd loved JT.  He is, like Obama often was, more popular outside his country than in.  I felt kind of proud to be Canadian, but probably not as strongly felt as my embarrassment for being an American with Trump tantrum-ing nearby.

The third panel had the surprisingly humorous Jens Stoltenberg, NATO SG, getting grilled by CNN reporter Barbara Starr.  He joked that Trump paid for breakfast (the one where Trump yelled at him).  It was not that informative, but still pretty interesting.

The final panel before lunch was on Inclusive Security.  This mostly referred to women in a variety of ways, and had three speakers---one American LTG Shepro, Isabelle Arradon of the International Crisis Group and Lima Ahmad, an Afghan from NATO Defence College.  It was pretty good, but was light on specific policy recommendations--that my pal Stefanie Von Hlatky pointed out the initiatives regarding women in the NATO communique were thinner than she had seen in previous drafts.  Still, it was well done and interesting.

The spotlight panel on technology was, well, when I was hungry so I didn't pay much attention.  Hangry Steve!

SVH did not say anything that to be bleeped
I missed the first panel of the afternoon, which was a bummer since I wanted to see Julia Ioffe in person (a very good journalist to follow on twitter) because I was scrumming!  I had to reject a bunch of media invites in Canada because I was at the event, but a bunch of media folks were at the event looking to talk to me and Stefanie.  So, it was fun, especially when I said something about "Trump talking out of his ass." I doubt they will use that on TV.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur as jet lag and conference fatigue hit me pretty hard.  The one panel that made an impact was with the Prime Minister of Macedonia (Republic of North Macedonia), which, fresh off of making an agreement with Greece about the name thing, is now in line to become NATO's next new member.   We then saw a movie dedicated to the retiring Jamie Shea, an institution at NATO.  It was roast-ish and funny.  And then he talked and was funny.

the dinner-less reception
Dinner was a lie.... that is, the reception was supposed to include a buffet which didn't happen.

So, what are my big reactions to the news of the day and how did I answer the various questions hurled in the scrum:
  • Despite the efforts of Trudeau to brand Canadian efforts as big and super special, they are mostly branding and not much that is new AND Trump doesn't care anyway.
  • the 2% thing was just Trump's way to rant at NATO and try to flip tables, which was underlined by his brainstorm to suggest spending 4%
  • that in our room and probably the big room, Trudeau won more fans than Trump, but the relative power meant that Trump was still more influential.  Still, Trudeau did do a good job of carrying the banner of the rules based

    international order, something folks were desperate to see.
  • the NATO communique identifying the areas of agreement came out late in the day (a day earlier than the last summit) and was about half the size of the last summit.  Not a lot of super initiatives, but notable stuff--Macedonia being officially in line for membership, heaps of hostile text towards Russia, the new NATO training mission in Iraq, and some other stuff.  Nothing as important as the enhanced forward presence in the Baltics like last time.

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