Donald Trump doesn’t just spew hyperbole, he inspires it. His rancorous words and thug-like body language in Europe triggered hysterical reactions back in his own country. Vali Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS tweeted that ‘In less than 3 months in office and Trump has managed to undo 7 decades of Transatlantic relations’. Speaking on Morning Joe, CFR’s president Richard Haas told his host ‘you could hear the tectonic plates of history move’.
That last comment would be perversely flattering to Trump, but in reality, the tectonic plates have been shifting gradually and silently over the years. More confusingly, they are pulling in opposite directions.
On the one hand, NATO is weaker today than it was thirty years ago. This is not surprising. Alliances are only as strong as the threats they face. And whatever else it may be, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not Yuri Andropov’s Soviet Union.
There are other factors: Stephen Walt points out that ‘Attempts to give NATO important new missions “out of area” did not go well’. The Afghan intervention after 9/11 was a NATO mission, with ISAF forces operating in that country from 2001 to 2014. Results were at best mixed. More disastrous was America’s invasion of Iraq, in which Britain and a few other NATO members participated. As Walt argues, ‘toppling Saddam Hussein made Iraq a focal point and recruiting zone for jihadi terrorism (something it had not been under Baathist rule) and eventually led to the emergence of the Islamic State. In a very real way, therefore, the war in Iraq made Europe less secure.’
Differences over the Iraq war also marked the beginning of a deterioration in US relations with Germany, the largest economy in continental Europe. David Frum notes that decline continued under Obama with differences over economic policy and Edward Snowden’s revelations of US spying. Frum also quotes an article he wrote last year:
‘So long as the Germans most hostile to the U.S. alliance espoused various shades of fascism and communism, then the mighty German middle would cling determinedly to the U.S. alliance as a bulwark of stability and liberalism.
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency up-ends German political assumptions about the United States, at a time when Germans are already ready to have those assumptions up-ended.’
As if on cue, German chancellor Angela Merkel let her views be known. As The New York Times reported:
Clearly disappointed with Mr. Trump’s positions on NATO, Russia, climate change and trade, Ms. Merkel said in Munich on Sunday that traditional alliances were no longer as steadfast as they once were and that Europe should pay more attention to its own interests “and really take our fate into our own hands.”
“The times in which we could rely fully on others — they are somewhat over,” Ms. Merkel added, speaking on the campaign trail after a contentious NATO summit meeting in Brussels and a Group of 7 meeting in Italy. “This is what I experienced in the last few days.”
Ms. Merkel’s strong comments were a potentially seismic shift in trans-Atlantic relations. With the United States less willing to intervene overseas, Germany is becoming an increasingly dominant power in a partnership with France.
Merkel’s much-dissected comments may have been prompted in part by her experience with Donald Trump, but are also part of the growing differences between Germany and the United States.
But while the German chancellor’s remarks have provoked much angst in the US, Walt points out it’s not all bad:
‘For starters, consider how it would have sounded had Merkel said the exact opposite in her speech. What if she had declared, “We learned at the recent meetings that we can have total confidence in the United States to protect us in any and all circumstances, and therefore we Europeans do not need to take responsibility for our own fate”? That would have been a ridiculous thing for a European leader to say, and it reminds us that Europe “taking its fate into its own hands” is not by itself a bad idea at all. It depends, of course, on how Europeans choose to do that.
In fact, it would be highly desirable if Europe did take more responsibility for its own security. The EU has a population of more than 500 million and a combined economy of roughly $16 trillion. By contrast, the supposedly fearsome Russia of Vladimir Putin has a population of 144 million and a GDP that is less than $2 trillion. NATO’s European members spend more than four times more than Russia does on defense every year, and Russia’s long-term prospects are gloomy as its population shrinks and ages and as oil and gas become less and less important in the global economy. Russia can cause trouble of various kinds in nearby areas, but there is no chance that it could expand significantly (or effectively rule any territories it seized).
As I’ve noted before, the problem is not the amount of money that European countries devote to defense; the real problem is the way they spend it. A serious European effort to rationalize and streamline its defense preparations would be a very good thing. And if that’s what Merkel is proposing, amen.’
Let’s also remember the factors that have breathed fresh life into NATO. For more than two decades now, NATO has been expanding eastwards (Montenegro, the latest candidate, is due to join the alliance on Monday, June 5). The first, exuberant phase of expansion spread NATO thin but nevertheless brought it up to Russia’s western borders in 2004 with the absorption of three former Soviet republics: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Heady talk began about drawing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Russia pre-empted any such moves by waging small wars against those two countries in 2008 and 2014 respectively.
Unfortunately for Russia, those actions, and its attempts at influencing Western elections have only succeeded in strengthening the alliance. While NATO expansion has slowed down (tiny Macedonia is likely to be its 30th and last member), the alliance has drawn closer together. It is certainly more meaningful today than it was in say 1992. In particular, NATO’s enthusiastic new members in eastern Europe are eager to strengthen transatlantic ties. The Pentagon’s 2018 budget includes a nearly $5 billion request for a so-called “European Reassurance Initiative” that will involve among other things, an increased presence of US troops in the region and “enhanced pre-positioning” of equipment, a time-honoured NATO practice.
Finally, Russia’s attempts to use energy, specifically gas supplies to maintain leverage over Europe are also likely to backfire. The American shale gas revolution, combined with the construction of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) terminals on both sides of the Atlantic, will probably help Europe diversify its energy supplies within a decade.
Like all alliances, NATO will end someday. But I’ll wager it will last well beyond Trump’s presidency.