NATO in the Trump Era:
Personalities Versus Bureaucracy
It could be said of President Trump’s visit to the NATO summit that, “He came, he saw, he antagonized.” The two days was a mélange of headlines on personal conflicts, American bullying on spending, emergency meetings, and the long-term future of the organization.
Despite that, the final communiqué adhered to the traditional neutral words and talked about shared responsibilities and common threats like terrorism. NATO stressed “Meaningful dialogue with Russia.”
However, as the world looks at the NATO meeting and the personal conflicts between national leaders, it’s important to remember that NATO isn’t a group of a couple dozen people, but a large organization of tens of thousands of people spread around the world. It is NATO officers at duty stations in North America and Europe, who work with each other daily, despite the political differences of their leaders.
With that in mind, it’s just as important to look behind the headlines of these NATO summits to see what is actually taking place.
One clear thing is that despite the rumblings about Trump’s personality and bluster, he is having an impact.
One of Trump’s biggest campaign points in 2016 is that NATO countries should increase their defense spending to meet their promised commitments.
He reiterated his position at recent rally in Montana. Trump said, “You know, Angela, I can’t guarantee it, but we’re protecting you, and it means a lot more to you because I don’t know how much protection we get by protecting you.”
That’s a statement that doesn’t’ improve relations between Germany and the US. And, it got worse when Trump arrived in Europe for the summit. He pointedly told NATO leaders, “Germany is a captive of Russia…It’s very inappropriate.”
“I think it’s something that NATO has to look at,” Trump said. “Germany is totally controlled by Russia.”
The verbal spat spread from defense issues to trade when Trump said that its NATO allies should “reimburse” Washington for defending the continent.
“Everybody’s talking about it all over the world, they’re saying we’re paying you billions of dollars to protect you, but you’re paying billions of dollars to Russia,”
The president was referring to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would bring gas from Russia to Germany’s northeastern Baltic coast, bypassing Poland and Ukraine, and doubling the amount of gas Russia can send directly to Germany. The project is opposed by the United States and a few other European Union members.
Trump is not the first U.S. president who brought defense spending up to the European allies. However, he has highlighted in a more dramatic and verbal way.
However, the truth is that Europe has let its military commitments lag and has grown to rely upon the US for its defense. Its air forces are largely incapable of operating in advanced anti-access/area-denial environments, which means that in wartime it will be up to the Americans to attack advanced missile sites. European allies have failed to make significant investments in air and missile defense, giving Russia a free pass in these critical technology areas. Legal documents such as the Ottawa Treaty, which limit anti-personnel and other types of mines, are a disadvantage and unrealistic when Russia still uses them. Europe has also failed to keep its navies able to wage an anti-submarine campaign in the Atlantic, which means that in wartime Americans will have to clear the Atlantic sea lanes before they can even land heavy equipment on European soil. So far as highly mobile armored units go, most European armies’ tanks are either too few or too antiquated to fight in a modern land war.
In fact, the number of countries laying out firm plans to meet the 2 percent target by 2024 has more than tripled, from 5 in 2014 to 16 today. (Currently, the United States, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Poland, and Romania are the only NATO members spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense). And the United States spends far more — 3.6 percent.)
If European countries aren’t meeting their commitments, at least there’s momentum toward improvement. Admittedly, experts debate the effectiveness of the 2 percent target; some argue that it fails to address the actual impact of defense spending on national defense. Some point out that it doesn’t measure actual effectiveness like unit readiness.
America’s major NATO allies weren’t interested in pushing forward the spending increases during the summit. France’s Macron said, “Everyone agreed to raise spending as they agreed in 2014.”
Germany’s Merkel said, “We’ll have to talk about to what extent we can do more on defense.”
If the 2% defense spending level was too controversial for some in NATO, Trump acting like a real estate negotiator raised the ante by proposing a 4% spending target for the future.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders confirmed that, “During the president’s remarks today at the NATO summit, he suggested that countries not only meet their commitment of 2 per cent of their GDP on defense spending, but that they increase it to 4 per cent.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was reluctant to endorse such a move.
“I will focus on what we have agreed, and we have agreed that we committed to the pledge increasing defense spending to 2 percent,” he told reporters. “And let’s start with that. We have a way to go.”
“We do have disagreements, but most importantly, we have decisions that are pushing this alliance forward and making us stronger,” Stoltenberg said.
“At the end of the day, we all agree that North America and Europe are safer together.”
However, many who oppose Trump’s plans say the Russian threat is overblown. They note, Trump’s supplemental military budget boost this year of $54 billion is almost as large as Russia’s entire 2018 military budget. As for Trump’s claim that Europe is not paying its fair share of NATO expenses, note that that Britain and France combined spend more on their military forces than Russia.
But no matter what, it’s hard to convince NATO allies to put more into defense when they are being castigated by Trump. The NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg was caught off guard, when he tried to downplay the differences by stressing that NATO members have been able to “work together despite their differences.”
Trump lashed back: “But how can you be together when a country is getting its energy from the person you want protection against or from the group that you want protection? You’re just making Russia richer. … Explain that!”
But, there is more than bombast to Trump’s comments. Other than energy exports, Russia produces almost nothing competitive on world markets. That is Russia’s economic jugular vein, and Trump is putting pressure where it counts.
Is NATO Coming Apart at the Seams?
Although it appears NATO is collapsing: for need of a clear, hostile Soviet enemy, the potential loss of Turkey to the alliance and the very public disagreements amongst the major NATO allies – that doesn’t mean NATO is doomed to collapse.
NATO remains a strong alliance, with thousands of military officers and government employees handling the everyday tasks. Trump and Merkel may have a public spat, but that has little impact on the everyday tasks of the alliance – the tasks that make NATO an effective alliance.
It’s also important to remember that there are other NATO voices, not just the US, Britain, France, and Germany. And many of those leaders in Eastern Europe are more concerned about their former leaders, the Russians. They favor a more vigorous NATO alliance and support Trump.
Bulgarian president Rumen Radev told reporters, according to Reuters, “NATO is not a bourse which one can buy security. But yes, on the other hand, President Trump is right, as each country should build its effective capabilities.”
Trump’s attacks on Germany were also quietly welcomed by countries like Greece, who heavily indebted to German banks and feel that the EU is controlled by Berlin.
Even British politician and Brexit architect Nigel Farage supported Trump saying, “Trump is merely quoting the rules of the club – to be part of NATO you have got to spend 2% of your GDP on defense…The argument is, why should America protect all these countries if they are not prepared to make a fair contribution.”
Despite the acrimony, remember, NATO has been through tough times like the Suez Crisis and the Iraq War before. There has never been a golden age when the allies got along perfectly.
For instance, French President De Gaulle withdrew France’s troops from NATO on June 21, 1966. This decision complicated relations between the U.S. and Europe during the height of the Cold War. Though France remained politically in NATO, its actions cast doubt onto the organization’s future as a counter to Soviet military power and influence.
This move by France was a major military problem for NATO. EUCOM, the European command was in France and had to be moved to Germany. Communications lines from military commands to EUCOM had to be replaced. In addition, all communication lines from the NATO units on the front lines had to be rerouted through Belgium.
Interestingly, despite the political disputes between the leadership, the NATO bureaucracy continued to work. According to former Ambassador to NATO Robert Ellsworth, “The departure of France was designed by de Gaulle to destroy NATO, but it didn’t destroy NATO. And it wasn’t long – in fact by the time I got there in 1969, there was already extensive collaboration and cooperation between the French military forces and the forces of NATO. And that has, of course, continued and even deepened to this very day.”
France would only rejoin NATO as a full-fledged member in 2009 – nearly a generation after the Cold War ended.
And, the fact is that despite the controversies of the last two days, there is no chance that Trump will pull a “De Gaulle.” And, no matter the arguments between the major NATO leaders, the NATO machinery will continue to function.