Tune in for another episode of ‘Make America Great Again!’ You’ll remember June’s episodes saw President Trump scupper the Canadian G7, cozy up to Kim Jong-Un and instigate wide-ranging steel and aluminium tariffs against the EU, Canada and Mexico.
De-sensitized as we’ve become to Trumpian geopolitics, we were unprepared for the untrammeled lunacy of July. Pissing off the Canadians was clearly just the beginning.
July 2018 highlights included a stormy NATO summit, followed by a non-State visit to Britain where Trump continued to confuse bilateral with bipolar by criticizing British PM Theresa May’s Brexit plan and then not. The episode reached its agonizing conclusion in Helsinki where Trump met Russian President Vladimir Putin, publicly savaged the reputation of US intelligence and security agencies by denying Russian interference in the 2016 US election, then suggesting to an outraged Washington caucus that he simply misspoke.
Trump followed his lackluster retraction with the edifying suggestion that there are “a lot of people out there.” It’s an interesting idea. Let’s therefore examine the folk comprising Europe’s security order to see what transpired during the initial NATO Summit in Brussels, before the inevitable diplomatic cataclysms of August.
Prior to the NATO summit, European allies were reportedly “scared s***less” at the possibility of Trump trashing NATO before cozying up to Putin in Helsinki. This produced superbly dramatic headlines including “How Trump and Putin could kill NATO” or “Can Nato survive US President Donald Trump?”. In analyzing the summit, the real question therefore is the separation of predictable official business from the truly unexpected.
It’s Not Unusual
The American refrain of increased defence spending was top of the list. Underlying this demand is the American suspicion that European NATO members persist in paying little into NATO, while receiving a hefty, permanent dividend of protection under the US security umbrella. Accordingly, US defence secretaries and presidents alike have routinely demanded that NATO members contribute more. In 2011 for instance, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned that NATO faced “a dim if not dismal future”should NATO members fail to raise defence spending. President Obama however succeeded in formally committing NATO members to the goal of 2% national GDP at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, to be reached within a decade.
Critics could argue that European defence remains largely aspirational in both spending and strategy. Supporters meanwhile point to dramatic uptakes in defence governance within both NATO and EU structures, with NATO members approaching the 2% target, making Europe the “fastest-growing region in real-terms defence spending” in 2017.
Against this background, Trump’s limited grasp of NATO’s modus operandi and transactional view of international relations produced a predictable tirade on spending thresholds. By the end of Day 1, Trump’s plain views had been made plainer still. Trump repeated the same message On Day 2 in increasingly hysterical tones, with accusations of Europeans enjoying afree lunch on the US, followed by meretricious attacks on Germany, Spain and the Benelux. At the emergency meeting hastily convened to contain further outbursts, Trump then fired off a trio of demands. First, he demanded the 2% spending timetable be brought forward; second that “after 2 percent, we’ll start talking about going higher… I think 4 percent is the right number”, and third, that in the absence of European cooperation on defence spending, the US could ultimately “go it alone.”
The first claim demand is not entirely unreasonable, but currently unmanageable for most. The second claim can be dismissed as ‘rounding up’ on the basis of Trump’s false claim that US defence spending now exceeds 4% (it’s closer to 3.5%). Overall, the summit’s arithmetic arguably produced “a new sense of urgency due to President Trump’s strong leadership on defence spending”, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. However, this does not equate to the summit breakthrough that Trump subsequently credited himself with,claiming that NATO allies have “stepped up like they’ve never stepped up before”. Indeed, the $30 to $40 billion of ‘new’ defence spending touted by Trump is not new money, but the trajectory of increased spending that NATO members committed under the far defter work of President Obama, as members confirmed at the summit’s conclusion.
The Twilight Zone
Trump’s third argument – to abandon NATO entirely – tipped the summit from punchy to imperiled, and brought into question key assumptions underlying European security. Trump’s differential worldview has been evident for some time. But by censuring Germany for its Russian natural gas imports, shirking the role of Article V to defend a threatened NATO member, and finally threatening a US-free NATO, Trump has seriously diminished America’s existing commitments to Europe.
Why? Is Trump genuinely intent on weakening, even demolishing NATO, or is he merely in a permanent state of campaigning: spouting abroad what plays well at home? From a short-term perspective, I agree with Judy Dempsey and Tomáš Valášek that “the drama that Trump creates” makes a difference to his home base as “it shows him as resolute. He’s causing crises for the sake of crises” because “what matters is whether he is seen as getting things done”. The problem, as I’ll argue in my next blog, is the consequences of such behavior, particularly when they backfire in multilateral settings.
For NATO, Trump’s temper tantrums over defence jeopardizes the broader structure of European deterrence. Threatening to pull the US out of NATO is a not only a dangerous, but treacherous option. It calls into question the very rationale of the post-war east-west balance that NATO represents, and suggests that new NATO initiatives – including the July agreement in Brussels “to reinforce eastern allies in a crisis” is mere saber-rattling. At best, it leaves NATO profoundly skeptical of American support while Trump remains in office. At worst, it could embolden Russian activity on a variety of fronts.
In terms of key relationships, the damage is done. Trump took aim at Germany over its Russian gas imports, followed by a breathtakingly venal display in front of Russian President Putin at the Helsinki summit less than a week later. Trump named the EU a foe while threatening to withdraw the US from NATO. He demanded defence increases blithely unaware of Permanent Enhanced Cooperation (PESCO), the new European Intervention Initiative or increased funding for the European Defence Agency, recent developments, all of which catalyze European defence spending.
But Trump’s post-summit on Montenegro (NATO’s newest member) takes the cake. Displaying a catastrophic lack of regional awareness, including NATO’s own efforts to cultivate delicate relationships in the Balkans between Greece and renamed North Macedonia, Trump suggested Montenegrins are “very strong people, they’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive and, congratulations, you’re in World War Three”. Laying to waste members old, new and prospective, as well as questioning the foundations of the current alliance, Trump’s abrasive and reckless approach has now made the entirety of NATO’s goals harder to achieve.
Under any US President, NATO would be reckoned a good bet, with rising member spending, new members and widening commitments in Europe and beyond. Indeed, in budgetary terms, the US’ material commitment to Europe continues to increases, with its planned European Defence Initiative set to receive $6.5 billion in funding in 2019 (up from $4.8 billion in 2018 and $3.4 billion in 2017). Unfortunately, the Brussels summit did not achieve “a tremendous amount of progress” because Trump focused solely on money, sowed discord among Western allies and ignored the cardinal tenets of collective defence. Instead, “money was the issue, not protecting shared values; not projecting security; not deepening solidarity in an alliance that the United States founded”.
Unsurprisingly, the summit takeaway is that the US cannot currently be relied upon as a reliable global partner. Is it any wonder that there are now “genuine fears that a second Trump term could leave Nato marginalised and its transatlantic spine deeply damaged”?