NATO and Trump’s Administration: not so obsolete after all

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NATO and Trump’s Administration: not so obsolete after all

-By Ivana Martac

The importance of transatlantic bond may not be the highest priority of current US administration, but at the same time, it is not entirely true that the current state of the transatlantic partnership is all gloomy at the moment. The purpose of this article is to undertake a systemic evaluation of the transatlantic partnership during Trump’s presidency. When it comes to NATO, the conventional thinking is that the President has tremendously undermined the Alliance, but one thing cannot be neglected – he certainly does what he says. In his determination to stop Europe from taking advantage of the US, he was constantly urging NATO member states to pay up 2% of their GDP to alliance budget. What President Trump understood well is that spreading democracy via military means is not contributing to the national interest of the US at all and that European partners are not really bearing the costs of their own security.

Costs over values

The European states have been reluctant to invest a bigger piece of their budget since they have been enjoying unconditional protection of the USA for decades. It was President Trump who openly made clear that this is not fair towards the States at G20 summit 2017. And he did so righteously since USA contributes 22.1% of the NATO budget per annum. It also spends around US$602.8 billion on defense and this is the equivalent of 70.1% of aggregate spending on defense by all NATO member states.[1]Even though Trump’s insistence on European allies to spend more and stop relying on US taxpayers to provide for their own security has resulted in many uncomfortable meetings, his uncompromising position contributed to strengthening the Alliance, that, at the end of the day, exists to counter Russians and keep Europe and America secure.

2% rule and issue of collective action

It seems reasonable to assume that it would be beneficial for all sides if the 2% rule can be met, not only in order to avoid frustration of current members and stop them from pointing fingers to each other, but also in order to set up clear conditional policy for aspiring members. What makes Trump really ticked off is unfairness, be it share of the burden or trade imbalances, and while many of Trump’s predecessors similarly demanded that NATO allies increase their military spending, it seems that Trump is actually getting results.

At the NATO summit 2018, two more allies, namely Lithuania and Latvia announced that they are meeting the alliance’s goal of 2 percent of GDP in annual defense spending, while another 14 member states are on track to hit the target, according to the officials’ sources.[2]NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg seems to agree with this approach since he thanked Trump for his leadership adding that “it is really having an impact because, as you said, allies are now spending more on defense.”

Moreover, it is worth noting that under Trump Administration the transatlantic alliance got two new member states: Montenegro and recently renamed North Macedonia.

In his uncompromising approach, the President repeatedly said he will even consider withdrawing USA from NATO. However, we should bear in mind that US membership in Alliance is supported by vast majority of American citizens, and also backed up by institutional support, including the first line of support from the Congress. According to the polls taken by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 91 percent of Americans say the United States is more effective when it works with allies, and the share of Americans who support an “active U.S. role in world affairs” has actually risen under Trump, from 63 to 70 percent. 75 percent want to see the United States maintain or increase its commitment to NATO. [3]

Lastly, it is often forgotten that the Administration is not Trump only. Opinions that count too are those of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, both very fond of the Alliance. It is also worth mentioning that this administration enhanced transatlantic cooperation in certain elements by implementing President Barack Obama’s decision to deploy more U.S. defense assets to Eastern Europe, sending arms to Ukraine, and signing legislation that is sanctioning Russia for interfering in U.S. elections and trying to assassinate a former spy in the United Kingdom.[4]

In the meantime, on the other side of Atlantic

There is a pressing need to reinvent transatlantic partnership as one where each side contributes equality to security and defense. It is not making it easier that the other side is trying to reframe the partnership by pursuing policies that strive to undercut US leadership, not only by pursuing strategic autonomy and spawning its own defense industry, but also seeking new trade deal partners. It is conventional thinking that breaches within the transatlantic community under current US administration are something brand new and that they go beyond anything previously seen. But in fact, “the history of the alliance is a history of splits”. Even President Eisenhower had the similar views to that President Trump but lacked a strategy to put them into practice. American skepticism over multilateralism is also not something new. It should be noted that the rationale of US deep engagement abroad did not disappear with Trump entering the office, but with the end of the cold war. To spell it clearly, the pivot to Asia begin with Obama in office. Naming and shaming of Germany also occurred under Obama, when the U.S. Treasury put Germany on a currency manipulation watch list.[5]As much as it may be true that the incumbent president does not believe in alliances and perceives Europe as a rival rather than a partner, the state of the transatlantic partnership is not exactly as J. Shapiro and Phillip Gordon claim, saying that “the presidency of Donald Trump inflicted the deathblow.”[6]

What post-atlantics might be getting wrong

Strategic autonomy is a move undertaken by the EU partially to cope with unpredictability in Washington, partially to consolidate its own power. Significantly weakened after Brexit, it seems that EU with the idea of a European army, the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), European Intervention Initiative (E2I), and Franco-German defense deal seeks to demonstrate its ability to provide its own security. But how realistic is this? Those in support of European strategic autonomy often overestimate the military power of the EU, it’s cohesion, the role of Germany and its ability to become a security provider. Investing money in all these initiatives that have questionable utility and may turn out to be difficult if not impossible to implement in practice, like EU battlegroups that were never deployed. It seems that mere logic behind is that Union wants to demonstrate that is no longer willing to play the role of “economic giant, political dwarf and military worm.”[7]This new proactive approach started with European Global and Security Strategy issued only 2 days after Brexit that called for “principled pragmatism”. In line with this reasoning, the new ideas about European autonomy may be also related to outgoing Brussels’ administration and their wish to leave behind something as their legacy.

With the United Kingdom leaving the EU (though it will remain committed to European security and NATO), France remains the only nuclear power and the only major conventional military power in the EU. Merkel said that “Europe must take its destiny in its own hands”[8]non exactly clarifying what would that entail. Given that Germany currently spends 1.2% of GDP on defense if decides to rely heavily on France to defend Europe, it will have to make concessions in other areas, such as economic policy[9]what eventually may turn out to be quite unpleasant and/or unrealistic. Furthermore, we shall not forget the stance of specific member states, such as Poland and Finland that are not so eager to decouple from the US. At the end of the day, the role of US as a security guarantor was crucial for post World War 2 European integrations and there is no reason to believe it would be easy to build a new vision of Europe without the US, especially because the member states itself have competing visions.

Perspectives for the future

As already said, there is an urgent need to reframe what Hamilton called a dysfunctional marriage[10]in a more fair and equitable manner. Stephen Walt predicts gradual transformation of NATO where Europeans will take much more responsibility for their defense while the US might stay a former member, but more likely taking a mere observing status, provided that EU finds the collective will to pursue its strategic autonomy dreams. In this scenario, the US will eventually stop acting like the last resort and will lose strategic patience with Europe. As already seen, the United States is becoming less tolerant over European free riding and passivity. Europeans should get used to the idea that the US won’t be willing to play a role of global hegemon any longer, a provider of free public goods, and the first line of security.

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