By Eleanor Beevor
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s barrage of criticism around NATO, a Bulgarian political analyst commented that for Trump, “…allies are like ex-wives, they only make moral and financial claims.” There is a definite ring of truth to this. However, Trump’s skepticism of alliances seems to be born more from his business background than his personal life.
Swinging a populist hammer at all that Washington career politicians hold dear was what brought him to the White House. And his point of attack, forged in business boardrooms, is the financial bottom line. Monetary contributions to NATO evidently do matter. But Trump’s obsession with them, along with his failure to appreciate what alliances are really made of, could have deeply damaging consequences – both for his legitimacy at home, and for global stability.
It’s true that Trump’s position relative to past administrations has been somewhat skewed in media coverage. Trump may be poles apart from his predecessors rhetorically. However, President Obama, and President Bush before him, similarly urged NATO allies to increase defence spending to 2% of their GDP. But unlike his forerunners, Trump has proven himself willing to rewrite doctrines of American foreign policy on the fly.
Trump has attacked NATO in front of his support base, repeatedly insinuating that the US is paying for European security through the alliance, and receiving nothing in return. Whether this is a bluff born from his “art of the deal” approach to politics or what he really thinks is hard to tell. But if there was any President who might call that bluff, it is Donald Trump.
The NATO summit itself, held last week in Brussels, did not exactly stabilize the situation, although it did quell fears for a few days that American departure from the alliance was imminent. But now Trump is under fire again, including by members of his own party and media outlets normally friendly to him, for his extremely controversial press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki just after the summit finished. Putin confidently spun Russian foreign policy positions, whilst Trump appeared unaware of his own stance. He proceeded to undermine US intelligence agencies’ conclusions that Russia had attempted to influence the 2016 election, and accepted Putin’s denial instead.
Most recently, Trump appeared on Fox News expressing reservation around NATO Article 5. Article 5 is the existential foundation of the alliance, since it mandates that its members come to the aid of a fellow member if it is attacked. Whether Trump is aware that Article 5 has only been invoked once since NATO’s foundation - by America after the September 11 attacks - is unclear.
Given that renewed Russian aggression is the biggest security concern for NATO’s European partners, their nervousness about where Trump’s allegiances really lie, and whether he will be a willing or reliable partner, is understandable. For a moment, it seemed that crisis at the summit had been averted by Trump being able to give the impression that he had forced member states to boost their defence spending.
From having initially threatened that the US could “go our own way” if fellow allies did not increase their spending commitments, Trump went on to appraise the alliance as “very strong” at the end of the summit. This was purportedly thanks to the “tremendous progress” he claimed to have made in getting allies to boost their financial input. But this is not, in fact, credit where it’s due. Stephen Saideman, Professor of International Relations at Carleton University in Canada and an expert on NATO told Al Bawaba:
“Countries are boosting their defence spending to 2% in reaction to Putin’s behavior the past several years. Trump is being allowed to take credit for it, so that his ego is soothed. But the change was happening before Trump was elected. He may actually make it harder for countries to spend more since leaders will not want to be seen as submitting to Trump’s harsh demands.
While previous Presidents were concerned about burden-sharing, this was not the only topic they cared about. For Trump, this is all he cares about, so he is focused on a divisive issue and handling it in a very divisive way, rather than trying to build consensus on a number of issues.”
It is not unreasonable to ask for an equal commitment between allies. However, a total fixation with the financial aspects of NATO is not only short-sighted. It is potentially destructive to the alliance itself. For an effective alliance is, above anything else, based on trust.
For NATO to work, it must be a genuine political fraternity rather than just a financial quota for one’s own military – after all, NATO spending commitments go to member’s own armies, and are not pooled as common resources. And Trump’s fixation with spending inhibits him from seeing the alliance in political terms. Unlike business, not everything is for sale in politics.
Traditional Russian nested dolls featuring Putin and Trump (Shutterstock)
Dr. Jill S. Russell, a military historian and a professor of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College, told Al Bawaba:
“Attacking the political foundations of an alliance is particularly dangerous. Whether NATO survives is no longer clear, and that's a massive shift from 18 months ago. And the fear should be not just that NATO breaks publicly, but that we may not know it is broken until too late. Perversely, Trump's actions might drive defense spending within NATO states while weakening the alliance and relationship.”
Also troublesome is that defence spending on military “hard power” may not be the most suitable response to the current threats the alliance faces. It is certainly not unimportant when trying to deter another Crimea. But there are other pressing threats to NATO members, ones which more tanks and soldiers cannot match.
Dr. Russell continued:
“I would not concede the wisdom of the 2% demand. Never mind the potential charge of hypocrisy in the fact that the US does not meet this target for its own NATO resourcing, it is equally true that the US already spends too much itself on defense. US strategic effectiveness has gone down in the age of the professionalized AVF (All Volunteer Force) and increasing defense budgets. For European states to ramp up spending against an unknown threat seems unwise.
To ramp up spending against a restless Russia, which seems more interested in political to strategic activity, more cyber than kinetic, seems downright foolish. Worse, the focus on an ambiguous number gets in the way of the sensible defense spending reform that would benefit NATO and the European-US strategic relationship.”
This does not excuse short-sighted moves on the part of other NATO members. Trump has relentlessly criticized Germany for a deal that they signed with Russia called Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that would almost double the amount of gas that Germany could import from Russia. The deal has also been the subject of ire from Eastern European NATO members such as Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states.
That is partly because it denies them a chance to collect revenue from gas transiting through their countries. But there is also fear that Russia could endanger Eastern European energy security. Since revenue from its biggest customer – Germany – would be guaranteed, Russia could choose to turn off its other pipelines to Eastern Europe.
Radek Sikorski, the former Foreign Minister of Poland and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for European Studies at Harvard University, told Al Bawaba that this deal risks creating political divisions between European states:
“Germany sees Nordstream as an economic matter - helping them to become the distributor of Russian gas in Europe - while Central and Eastern Europe sees it in both financial and geopolitical terms. It is true that the building of Nordstream means that the second line of the Jamal pipeline across Poland does not get built. And also, that Ukraine may be deprived of its transit fees from the Druzba pipeline systems. If energy union is to mean anything, Germany should drop the project.”
One can reasonably object to unequal spending by NATO members, or to ill-advised political moves by member states. But Trump is clearly still out of his depth when it comes to recognizing political value beyond price tags.
His uncritical admiration of Putin is also deeply concerning. It is right to want to avoid escalation with Russia, and to cooperate with Moscow where possible – on issues such as Syria, it will be unavoidable. But as even hardline Trump supporters are now declaring, to be naïve about Vladimir Putin would be a devastating mistake. And to hammer the political foundations of an alliance that empowered his country for decades over an arbitrary spending target is a very bad approach to a deal that’s good for America.
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