This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 21 May 2018.
On May 17, when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with President Donald Trump at the White House, part of Stoltenberg’s agenda was to insulate NATO from the political winds whipping through the transatlantic relationship. It’s too early to tell if he succeeded, but it is now entirely possible that when the United States and its allies meet at the NATO Summit in Brussels in July, transatlantic relations will be at their lowest ebb since the 2003 Iraq War. Will the NATO alliance, buffeted by disputes not directly related to its mission, feel the chill of this deep freeze in transatlantic political relations, or be insulated from it?
The ‘transatlantic bond’ — what Euro-Atlanticists call the broad similarity of values, interests, and traditions that underpin NATO’s unity — is being frayed at two ends: the geopolitical and the economic. First, on May 8, President Trump announced that he would withdraw the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). His decision may have been intended to set off a chain of events that ends with regime change in Iran, but its most immediate effect was to pry open the already yawning wedge between his administration and European political leaders.
It remains to be seen how the United States will re-impose sanctions on Iran, and how secondary sanctions will penalize European companies that continue doing business with and inside Iran. However, if the warnings of Richard Grenell, the new U.S. ambassador to Berlin, to German companies are any indication, Euro-Atlanticists should be concerned.
For Europe’s part, the takeaway seems clear. On the same day that Stoltenberg was set to meet Trump, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, made waves when, referring to the U.S. president, he tweeted “with friends like these who needs enemies.”
Second, a festering dispute over Trump’s threat to levy tariffs on European steel and aluminum could erupt into a trade war that would greatly undermine economic and political ties between Europe and the United States. It is not obvious how a trade war would inflict immediate damage on the alliance. But it is naive to think that bitterness over trade would not seep into NATO’s meeting rooms. For instance, European allies might decide to further favor procurement from European defense industry over U.S. industry, a move that would almost certainly inspire a howl from American defense industry about unfair competition.
For the moment, several layers of insulation protect NATO from catching a cold from a transatlantic diplomatic winter.
The first layer is U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who has been vigorous in his efforts to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to NATO, and to protect and deepen U.S.-European cooperation on territorial defense, particularly as it concerns the military threat of Russia. Mattis has done this despite the president’s combative remarks towards European allies and their leaders, not to mention his apparent fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The result has been a strangely schizophrenic American approach to Europe: alarming rhetoric attacking Europe and Europeans from the president’s Twitter account, but reassurance, outreach, and assistance behind the scenes.
The second layer is a U.S. security and defense apparatus that resists sudden or capricious changes in the day-to-day conduct of defense and foreign policy. As a former ambassador, I greatly appreciate the expertise and professionalism of the U.S. diplomatic corps, the U.S. military as well as civil servants. These career public servants are profoundly dedicated to the steady protection and advancement of American interests, a task that includes the maintenance of good ties with longstanding allies. They understand that NATO and our European allies, many of whom host American military bases, provide great value to the U.S. government and taxpayer that cannot be estimated in purely transactional terms.
The third layer remains a European willingness, at least for now, to endure through gritted teeth whatever Trump has to say. While it is difficult to underestimate European dismay, it is also difficult to underestimate the European tendency to accommodate the most obdurate American demands. This stoicism results, in part, from a calculation that presidential tantrums and tweets may not actually represent long-term U.S. policy and could change with the next presidential election. It also stems from a lack of solidarity among European Union members, some of whom — like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — share an affinity for Trump’s anti-immigrant views and strongman tendencies. It further reflects Europe’s continuing reliance on the U.S. security umbrella, no matter who is president.
That said, there may be a level of humiliation that Europe is not prepared to endure. On 10 May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared, “It’s no longer the case that the United States will simply just protect us… Europe needs to take its fate into its own hands.”
The fourth and final layer protecting NATO from the transatlantic chill will be familiar to students of bureaucracy: Established institutions are notoriously hard to dissolve. The alliance benefits from 70 years of Western reverence and habit, and a hostile American president cannot ignore it into irrelevance. Damaging it in any meaningful way would require hard decisions by the United States and a painful uprooting of diplomatic relationships, physical assets, and chains of command.
As strong as these layers of insulation are, they are not unbreachable. The most vulnerable layer is the first. While Mattis might seem secure in his position now, it should be clear to all observers of this administration that none of its senior officials is immune to Trump’s capriciousness. Were he replaced by a loyalist more in tune with the president’s moods, words, and actions — much as H.R. McMaster was replaced by John Bolton — the Pentagon could very well be brought swiftly and harshly into alignment with the White House.
Further, it is possible that the Europeans could decide that their security could be more effectively and more pleasantly ensured through purely European military cooperation. In fact, a long-overdue revolution in European security affairs is now underway, provoked largely by the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the European Union, which takes away a sizable chunk of the union’s military capacity and capability. For E.U. defense ambitions, Brexit liberated Europe more than it liberated Britain. Unconstrained by longstanding British intransigence towards any E.U. project which might have clashed with NATO’s mandate, the European Union is now seriously contemplating a level of military cooperation not imaginable just a few years ago — even if the first projects, approved in early March, are humble in scope.
If we lived in an era of close transatlantic ties, a European Union with a strong military component would be a NATO complement. But in today’s acrimonious political climate, a strong, autonomous EU military capability could compete with NATO for limited capabilities, personnel, and funds.
Finally, all these layers of insulation would be vulnerable in the face of a full-out assault. As commander in chief of the forces that make up most of the alliance’s military capability, Trump has it largely in his power to break NATO’s spirit. At the last NATO Summit in May 2017, the president showed his ability to cow the allies, hectoring them as their leaders stood sheepishly nearby.
Such a dramatic move — reversing 70 years of U.S. foreign policy in favor of a self-defeating neo-isolationism — could result from some perceived slight or provocation. Unfortunately, one may exist: the ongoing decline in German defense spending as a percentage of its GDP.
Trump has focused much of his economic ire on Germany. In his transactional vision, the fact the German defense spending fell to 1.13 percent of the country’s GDP in 2017 — far below the alliance’s 2 percent target — could be seen as an insult. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that defense spending will reach 2 percent by 2024, the alliance’s self-imposed deadline, in part because of robust German GDP growth. That growth, in turn, owes much to the security provided by NATO and robust German exports to the American market — another Trump sore spot.
In normal times, diplomats would resolve the impasse through horse-trading. The United States might push less hard for the unrealistic 2 percent figure in exchange for, say, more German foreign military assistance. After all, every euro that Germany spends maintaining the Afghan National Army is over a dollar that the United States does not have to spend.
But this dispute is not among diplomats. It is between aggrieved and exhausted European leaders trying to decipher a mercurial, suspicious, and self-obsessed president. As trite as it may sound, flattery might soothe the president’s ego and allow the alliance to emerge from the upcoming summit with no lasting scars.
Stoltenberg tried this familiar tactic during his Oval Office meeting with Trump last week. Speaking to assembled journalists, he said that “all allies are now increasing their defense budgets,” only for Trump to interrupt him with a self-promotion question: “Do you give me credit for that?” Stoltenberg replied, “Your leadership has been very important.” The president did not seem overly impressed. Later, sitting next to Stoltenberg in the Cabinet Room, he griped that the United States had “lost $151 billion dealing with the European Union.”
Europeans have now played the appeasement game several times with the Paris Accords and the Iran nuclear deal. They might not play it again. Even the best insulation can fail when cold winds blow this hard.
About the Author
Azita Raji served as the U.S. ambassador to Sweden from 2016 to 2017.
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