Nato meets today and tomorrow in Brussels for what could prove to be a defining moment for western defence.
President Donald Trump has already thrown this Nato summit into turmoil by questioning the future of the alliance, even as his trade war with the European Union deepens. He has alarmed officials in both Nato and the EU by linking his anger at the European trade surplus to longstanding frustration in Washington that many European countries – Germany in particular – do not meet Nato’s targets on defence spending.
A month ago, after the acrimonious breakdown of the G7 summit in Canada, Trump tweeted: “The US pays close to the entire cost of Nato – protecting many of these same countries that rip us off on trade (they pay only a fraction of the cost – and laugh). Germany pays one per cent (slowly) of GDP towards Nato, while we pay a much larger GDP. Does anybody believe that makes sense? We protect Europe (which is good) at great financial loss, and then get unfairly clobbered on trade. Change is coming.”
Germany which has Europe’s largest economy, runs a $64 billion trade surplus with the US and has a defence budget of 1.2 per cent of GDP this year. It will raise it to 1.3 per cent next year. It hopes to hit the Nato target of two per cent by 2030, six years after the agreed deadline.
Italy, with a $32 billion trade surplus with the US spends just 1.1 per cent of GDP on its military. France, Europe’s main military power alongside Britain (which just meets the two per cent target), spends 1.8 per cent of GDP, but is expected to meet the Nato target of two per cent by 2025.
The US is by far the biggest contributor to Nato of military personnel, warplanes, ships, submarines and money at a time of increased threat from Russia. True, the US spends more on defence than the rest of Nato combined. But much of that money goes on Pacific, Asian and other non-Nato commitments.
Despite Nato never looking in better military shape, politically it is in tatters and stretched to breaking point amid a widening trade row and Trump’s repeated attacks on the EU. That is the paradox facing the Alliance as it approaches today’s summit.
The military mission is clear: to deter Russian aggression in eastern Europe. In military terms, Nato’s trip-wire force in the Baltic states and Poland is small – just a few thousand troops. But they come from 25 national armies. The message to the Kremlin is unequivocal: messing with your former Soviet colonies means killing soldiers from some of the world’s richest and most powerful countries.
The idea that responsibility is the price of great power is deeply unfashionable in Washington these days
The US has played a central role in this, thanks to the Pentagon and to Congress, which has poured money into European defence. Thanks also go of course to President Vladimir Putin, whose attack on Ukraine in 2014 opened European eyes and stiffened spines. Yet the mood in the western alliance is remarkably jittery, with nerves rattled not by Putin’s bombast, but by Trump’s.
Ingredients for a debacle in Brussels over the next couple of days abound. On the campaign trail, Trump dismissed Nato as obsolete. He has repeatedly complained that it is too costly. During the German Chancellor’s first visit to the White House, the US President even presented Angela Merkel with an amateurishly drafted invoice for American military protection. The so-called allies, in his view, are not only freeloaders, they are cheating the US on trade.
He appears to forget that American greatness, and an American-led world, rest on fostering alliances, not shredding them. He is right to say European countries have skimped on defence spending, but their spending is now rising, quite fast in some cases.
The tragedy is that Trump’s approach is stoking anti-Americanism in Europe. Making a case for the Atlantic Alliance has become harder. In Germany, 58 per cent of the public see Russia as a reliable partner, 43 per cent count China in that category. Only 14 per cent still trust the US. Even when Trump’s administration does the right thing politically, such as supporting Ukraine, the reaction is mistrustful.
Fired by what Trump believes was a successful summit with Kim Jong-un, he now wants to pull the same trick with Putin four days after the Nato summit meeting. Allies tremble at what he might concede in a one-to-one meeting with the steely ex-KGB spy he evidently admires.
Would he recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or withdraw troops from Germany? Would he cancel Nato’s vital military exercises in the Nordic-Baltic countries, just as he blithely promised an end to “war games” in South Korea?
Nato’s greatest asset is the collective defence commitment in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. An attack on any member risks incurring a response from all. But in the event of a surprise Russian incursion into the Baltic States, would the American commander-in-chief, woken in the wee small hours, order American troops to fight? Would he phone Putin and try and strike a deal? Or shrug and go back to sleep?
Even without a crisis, there is a chance that presidential petulance from this most unpredictable leader could sink Nato, signalling to the Kremlin that America will no longer fight for its friends. And if he feels that he has not received enough “respect” in Brussels today or tomorrow, he could fire off a tweet reporting that he has walked out of the summit.
Trump is a rhetorical bully, but where rhetoric leads actions follow. The idea that responsibility is the price of great power is deeply unfashionable in Washington these days. Trump’s impatience with what he sees as wishy-washy democracy is as obvious as his admiration for strongmen. He gives the impression of admiring America’s enemies more than he likes America’s friends.
Nato was the creation of a group of statesmen who knew the reality of world war and what was needed to keep the peace. It is a far from perfect organisation. The Europeans have to increase their contribution. But the US still needs allies in this complex world.
The man who could benefit from any disruptive behaviour by Trump in Brussels today would be Putin, for whom the neutralisation of Nato and the decoupling of America from European defence remain key foreign policy objectives.
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