The lead-up to this week’s NATO summit, a two-day affair gathering the heads of state of the 29-member alliance, has been punctuated by worries, some legitimate, others less so, about the president’s actions. The story thus far has been some version of the following: Donald Trump’s apparent admiration for Vladimir Putin and disdain for America’s European allies (as well as his reluctance to endorse Article 5 of the NATO charter during his first year in office), portend some repeat of the G-7-style fiasco. Reports in most newspapers this week have indicated that European officials anticipate the worst. The New York Times’ Roger Cohen, commenting on this week’s summits, wrote: “Trump’s a paid-up member of the growing illiberal authoritarian international movement.”
To be sure, the president makes it easy to expect the worst: Putin fine? NATO and the EU are designed to bilk us? His most deeply held instincts on these issues are said to reflect a primitive We’re-America-B****ism. If you ask him, NATO benefits the Europeans at our expense. Yet there’s fair reason to believe that his meeting with the 28 other heads of state in the alliance will not end in disaster. In fact, this summit will probably result in modest gains for the alliance and provide a ripe opportunity for the president to talk about his foreign-policy accomplishments . . . if he accepts the opportunity.
During an interview with National Review, General Denis Mercier — NATO’s supreme commander of Allied Transformation — played down these fears and denied that NATO envisions a worst-case scenario. Instead, he says, “What we expect from this summit is recognition of what has been done,” referring to agreements made at previous NATO meetings in Warsaw and Wales.
Mercier hopes that all NATO nations will work toward the goal, set at the alliance’s summit in 2014, of each ally spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense by 2024. He pointed to evidence that many states have made significant progress toward this goal in the years since. Indeed, Trump has an opportunity to tout the member nations’ increased military spending as one of his highest-profile accomplishments — though it has often been drowned out by his Germany-bashing. Mercier adds that the most important outcome of the summit will be improving political unity and responsiveness to common challenges.
Three things are clear: 1) The Europeans weren’t spending enough on defense in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula; 2) they weren’t spending enough on defense when Trump won the presidency; and 3) they aren’t spending enough now. In addition, many U.S. allies have neglected to make badly needed investments in military technology. (National Review recently published two excellent pieces on this topic.)
It’s also true, however, that this president is not the first to push the Europeans to contribute more to their defense, but his “madman” approach has yielded better results than the previous American presidents’ slightly exasperated pontifications about European free riding.
Julie Smith, a former Obama-administration official now at the Center for a New American Security, views Trump’s handling of the transatlantic alliance with skepticism. “Each month that moves by, we lose the ability to snap back and return to normal,” she told National Review. But even she now acknowledges that Trump’s bluster (alongside Vladimir Putin’s extracurricular activities in Ukraine) has spurred Europeans to increase their defense spending.
In fact, the number of countries laying out firm plans to meet the 2 percent target by 2024 has more than tripled, from 5 in 2014 to 16 today. (As of now, the United States, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Poland, and Romania are the only NATO members spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. And the Unites States actually spends far more — 3.6 percent.) If European countries aren’t meeting their commitments, at least there’s momentum toward improvement. Experts debate the effectiveness of the 2 percent target; some argue that it neglects to mention the actual impact of defense spending. While they have a good point that this metric doesn’t say too much, our European allies should be capable of, say, maintaining a fleet of functioning fighter jets.
However effective Trump’s hectoring of America’s allies to spend more on defense might be (and the precise impact is not clear, especially considering that Russia’s activities in Ukraine have also played a role), he should tune it down a notch or otherwise risk overplaying his hand.
Listen to the president at his recent rally in Montana:
I said, “You know, Angela, I can’t guarantee it, but we’re protecting you, and it means a lot more to you because I don’t know how much protection we get by protecting you.”
Among foreign-policy experts, there is a broad consensus that Trump’s bluster about Article 5 and the 2 percent target has convinced the Europeans to pay up, at least to an extent.
European leaders are not rolling their eyes at this griping, Smith tells me, because Trump has “taken some pretty radical decisions.” In other words, pulling out of the Paris Climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, among other acts, has convinced the Europeans that Trump might follow through on his threats to ignore previous American commitments to defend European allies. Based on his actions, the president now has a significant amount of credibility.
Conservatives who castigated President Obama for his failure to enforce the “red line” in Syria and his refusal to provide lethal defensive aid to Ukraine can now find a champion in President Trump, in spite of his blunt style. Among foreign-policy experts, there is a broad consensus that Trump’s bluster about Article 5 and the 2 percent target has convinced the Europeans to pay up, at least to an extent, and they see that Trump has had more success in this effort than previous administrations have.
Yet this newfound American credibility might be a double-edged sword. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, tells National Review that “the worst-case scenario is that [Trump] makes an off-hand comment saying that he isn’t prepared to defend these countries in the event of an attack.” The president has made similar comments about South Korea in private, Bremmer adds, cautioning that a similar comment at the NATO summit would be the single most dangerous development.
The fact that Europeans believe that Trump will deliver on his promises has resulted in greater burden sharing among NATO members — a good result. But, to maintain credibility, he could also be obligated to follow through on other promises or threats, such as revoking America’s security guarantees if NATO members don’t pony up. The point of the 2 percent goal is to maintain an alliance that’s prepared to face new threats, but what good is this spending if there’s no longer any political will to act in lockstep?
This NATO summit will probably deliver more good news besides increased burden sharing, including the creation of two new military commands, one based in the United States for maritime operations and the other based in Germany for military mobility. Other summit outcomes will likely include a boost to readiness, with member states contributing to forces capable of deploying within 30 days, and a deeper commitment to counterterrorism in Iraq and to improved cyber capabilities. Some, though, including Smith and Bremmer, aren’t floored by these improvements — Bremmer calls them “small-ball technocratic issues.”
The Trump administration’s accomplishments with regard to NATO — increased burden sharing and a recommitment to counterterrorism efforts — are critical. Adding to this, developments in our Russia policy — weapons to Ukraine and a tough, new round of sanctions — have increased the pressure on Putin, who is now facing much more American pushback than he did during the Obama years. Trump’s rhetoric about Russia has sometimes been distasteful. Asked about the Kremlin’s assassination of political opponents, he once said, “Well, I think our country does plenty of killing also.” But, in its actions, the administration is strengthening American policy and NATO at Vladimir Putin’s expense.
If the administration decides to move troops from Germany, as the Pentagon is now considering, a fundamental part of the American security architecture in Europe would be changed for the worse.
NATO has been through rough patches before. There has never been a golden age when the allies got along perfectly and everything was hunky-dory. From the Suez Crisis to the Iraq War, tumult has periodically defined the transatlantic relationship.
But this time could be different for two reasons:
1) Never before has an American president questioned the NATO charter’s Article 5 or said that the U.S. security commitment would be anything short of unconditional. Further, if the administration decides to move troops from Germany, as the Pentagon is now considering, a fundamental part of the American security architecture in Europe would be changed for the worse.
2) As Bremmer tells me, Trump’s distancing from the transatlantic alliance isn’t only politically popular at home, but it also reflects the view of many European governments, Italy and Hungary most notably. This suggests that there will be no return to the status quo ante.
But this does not mean that the American commitment to NATO is defunct. Last week, Jay Nordlinger wrote,
Is NATO in the U.S. interest? For generations, leaders of both parties have thought so, based on the experience of two world wars and a cold war. If the answer is now no — we ought to be plain about that, and stop pussy-footin’ around (to borrow a phrase from George Wallace).
The facts speak for themselves: From the war in Afghanistan to the campaign against ISIS and countless other missions, our NATO allies have not only fought alongside American troops. They have also laid down their lives in pursuit of missions that made the United States safer and better able to pursue trade with its partners. Our commitment to NATO ought to be unequivocal. Even if the president’s rhetoric is laced with potentially dangerous innuendo, those he has surrounded himself with see the great value of NATO. Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, James Mattis, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and other administration officials don’t get to make the final decision on such matters, but they can continue to steer the president in the right direction.
Predicting the outcome of tomorrow’s summit is as difficult as predicting the president’s tweets. For now, though, we should dispense with the alarmism and give credit where it is due: The meeting represents progress for NATO — and American interests by extension. The president would be better off to focus on his accomplishments than on the alliance’s divisions. However, something has changed: Even if the summit does not produce the fireworks that so many expect, the transatlantic security relationship will probably assume a new character in the long term, for better or worse.