Trump vs. NATO? Appearances and realities

Donald Trump and Jens Stoltenberg at the NATO Summit 2017. Photo: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Blog Elcano
Donald Trump and Jens Stoltenberg at the NATO Summit 2017. Photo: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Blog Elcano
Donald Trump and Jens Stoltenberg at the NATO Summit 2017. Photo: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Coming hard on the heels of the G7 in Quebec, and featuring largely the same cast, is the NATO summit in Brussels. At the unveiling of the organisation’s new headquarters slightly over a year ago, Donald Trump cast doubt on Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which spells out the commitment to mutual defence in the event of an attack by a third party, a comment he later rectified. Shorn of this Article, NATO would turn into a mere bureaucracy, bereft of its soul. This time Trump is preceded not only by a letter in which he asks the laggardly allies, including Spain, to make good on their undertakings to increase their military spending, but also by a menacing leak: the Pentagon is scrutinising the costs of keeping its troops in Germany, raising the prospect of a possible significant reduction in its military presence in Europe. This currently comprises a force of 65,000, more than half stationed in Germany (the number reached 400,000 at the height of the Cold War).

The NATO summit comes in the middle of Trump’s 360° trade war, where he has sometimes relied on the excuse of national security, as though the European vehicles that drive around on US freeways exemplified this type of problem. The threat of raising tariffs on such vehicles is simply a way of choking off imports, and the Europeans are prepared to retaliate. Trump wants Europe to spend more on defence, with the proviso that a good part of the spending be on American weapons systems. In Europe, where initiatives in the defence realm greatly outnumber cases of actual implementation on the ground, there is talk of “strategic autonomy”, but its attainment remains as yet a distant prospect. It still needs the US.

Underlying a clash between partners that seem more like rivals than allies, other realities prevail. On Trump’s watch, the US has deployed tanks on the northern flank of Europe for the first time since the 1990s; it has reactivated its Second Fleet and the Atlantic Naval Command, which had been mothballed; it has stockpiled military material in Eastern Europe; and doubled its contribution to its European Reassurance Initiative, designed to ease the worries of its Eastern European allies and dissuade Russia from any incursion or pressure exerted to its west, a programme that stemmed from the illegal annexation of Crimea and other Russian activities.

Trump however seems to enjoy himself more with his country’s new friends than its traditional ones, as may become evident at the subsequent summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, with whom he has to discuss various important regional issues, some of them impinging on NATO. Not that there is there any imminent territorial threat against NATO or its members. There is certainly pressure, because Putin seeks influence. And crucial questions on cybersecurity and misinformation are also on the agenda, but these are complex issues where governments, corporations, interest groups and individuals have a say. Headway is also being made in this field by NATO.

For his part the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, can submit a positive report on the three Cs: cash, capabilities and commitments. Military spending is increasing for the third year running in many of NATO’s European members, with particular impact on modernisation and the state of forces’ preparedness (although not at the speed sought by Washington, in light of the 2014 agreement at the Cardiff summit that they would all hit 2% of GDP, at least, by 2024); the Europeans have taken turns to deploy units in the Balkans; and they have put an EU initiative into operation to streamline “military mobility” in European road networks and airspace. A NATO programme in Baghdad is training Iraqi forces. If it does not end in a slanging match, this summit could be noted for its implementations rather for than setting out new definitions.

Trump knows that he can count almost unconditionally on some European leaders, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński and Andrzej Duda and Britain’s Theresa May, against the backdrop of the president’s first and controversial visit to London. Far less on Angela Merkel. Emmanuel Macron has tried to play a bridging role, but so far with little to show for it. NATO is more than these countries. It is also Turkey, with a domestically strengthened Erdoğan who has pulled away from this essentially Western framework to win influence and room for manoeuvre in his region.

In terms of social psychology, despite transatlantic tensions and doubts about its role, popular support for NATO remains strong.  A Pew Center survey conducted in May 2017, with Trump already installed in the White House, showed an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards NATO, ranging from 79% in the Netherlands and Poland to 67% in Germany, 60% in France and falling below 50% only in Spain (45%), Greece (33%) and Turkey (23%).

Beyond the verbal and trade spats however, there are interesting confrontations that are leading to a worrying break-up of unity in the West, where, as the latest Edelman barometer shows, trust in Western institutions and leaders is plummeting, while trust is surging in China. That said, despite the fact that it is changing profoundly and has lost cohesion and centrality, the news about NATO’s death has been greatly exaggerated.