If there’s one thing Angela Merkel can be relied on for these days, it’s Trump-bashing.
In May, the German chancellor held a rally of sorts with Barack Obama in front of the Brandenburg Gate, extolling the virtues of liberal internationalism only hours before meeting President Trump in Brussels. A few days later, Merkel suggested Trump’s ascendance to the presidency meant Europe might have to “take our fate into our own hands.” Most recently, in advance of the upcoming G20 summit in Hamburg, she chastised unnamed politicians for a supposed reversion to isolationism and protectionism, warning them not to “expect any easy conversations.” Trump went unnamed, but the intent was clear.
Such is what she says. But what Merkel — and European politicians more generally — are actually doing looks quite different.
Take, for instance, a recent announcement from Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO: Non-U.S. members of the treaty organization will raise their defense spending by 4.3 percent, or roughly $295 million, in 2017, coming on the back of an increase of 3.3 percent in 2016.
An increase in defense spending by fellow NATO members is, of course, exactly what Trump wants, having made it clear that he believes Germany, among other countries, has been paying far too little towards mutual defense for far too long. Their citizenries might despise Trump, viewing him as a threat to the liberal world order, and their leaders might view him with extreme wariness, but in the end the Europeans come around to his side anyway.
Or so it seems, at least on the surface. In fact, the reality is more complicated.
Among the primary relationships defining contemporary geopolitics is that between the West — the United States and its European partners — and the reinvigorated Russia of Vladimir Putin. It is this issue which has vexed Washington since the presidential election, as the investigation over Russian meddling continues. And ever since the Russians conquered Crimea and sparked a still-ongoing war in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, it has vexed European capitals, too: In 2014, It was the Ukraine crisis that sparked NATO leaders to commit to spending 2 percent of their respective GDPs on defense by 2024. This amounted to a recognition that the security issues that will face Europe in the decade to come are serious and demand a serious response — indeed, a fundamental change of the Cold War model in which the United States paid for defense and all countries benefited from it.
The European countries were thus already moving towards a higher level of defense spending before Donald Trump ever assumed the presidency. But the Trump presidency has helped to move things farther in that direction. Here, timing plays a large role: Merkel is currently campaigning for her fourth term as chancellor, with elections scheduled in September, and the German electorate holds some of the most negative opinions regarding the United States of any European citizenry. Anything less than a full denunciation of American policy and an aggressive willingness to confront the new American president head-on would be an electoral risk, as Merkel’s main opponents — the Social Democrats, led by Martin Schulz — would be only too eager to assume the mantle of chief Trump critics. Trump has done much to create the appearance of a void in American commitments to European defense — notably, the president refused to affirm NATO’s mutual-defense provision during his trip to Brussels earlier this year, though Defense Secretary James Mattis later did so — but European, and specifically German, political conditions have played a role of perhaps equal significance.
So long as Europeans can rest easy under the aegis of the American defense umbrella, there is little incentive for them to sacrifice portions of their own GDP to defense spending.
There is thus a certain irony in the spending increase. It is primarily in response to the threat of Russia, looming as it always has on the eastern border of the continent; the idea of a resurgent, ambitious Russia, so geographically proximate and historically resonant, has the capacity to spur European — and American — anxieties like no other issue can.
But so long as Europeans can rest easy under the aegis of the American defense umbrella, there is little incentive for them to sacrifice portions of their own GDP to defense spending. That money could otherwise go towards consumption or other favored government programs — the funding of vast migrant flows, perhaps — and the Europeans know that the United States would never let the capitals of central and western Europe become truly insecure against the Russian threat. (The Eastern Europeans, for whom full independence from Russian auspices is a recent thing, are less sure of their security, and thus have maintained higher defense spending.) But remove the inviolability of American assurances, and the portrait changes. A renascent Russia is insufficient to inspire higher European defense spending and a more serious European commitment; a renascent Russia plus the perception of an unreliable United States might be. The Europeans aren’t coming around to Trump’s side — they’re acting out of the dual fears of the perceived vacuum he has created and of Vladimir Putin’s agitations to the east.
It is nevertheless true that the tremors Trump has thus inspired in European capitals as of late just might work in the opposite direction from what we might expect. For a multitude of reasons — some cultural, some electoral, some historical — the Europeans desire to break with Trump, but they may well find geopolitical realities getting in their way, as the rise of Russia forces ideological issues to the back burner and brings hard-nosed questions of defense and calculations of national interest to the forefront.
The prospect of a rupture in the liberal world order — an undergirding tenet of which is the sanctity of the American commitment to the defense of the European continent — may be far-off, more the product of ill-advised rhetoric than of actual conditions on either side of the Atlantic, but if the very thought of it forces Europeans to confront tough choices about the future provision of their own defense, it may work out, in the long term, for the better.