Judy Asks: Is NATO Ready for Trump?
by Judy Dempsey (feat. Julian Lindley-French)
May 24, 2017
A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Erik BrattbergDirector of the Europe Program and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
To the extent possible, yes. While Donald Trump’s notoriously erratic behavior and short attention span means that one can never be fully prepared for him, the organizers of the May 25 NATO leaders meeting in Brussels have gone to great lengths to “Trump-proof” the event.
But behind the obvious theatrics, NATO allies are feeling more at ease about Washington’s commitment to the alliance than they did only a few months ago. Trump has backtracked on calling NATO obsolete and refrained from repeating threats made during the campaign about conditioning U.S. support for Article 5. Several visits by European leaders to the White House— including NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg—along with reassuring visits to Brussels by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have helped allay fears. Moreover, Trump’s recent tour to the Middle East shows he is capable of staying on script and appearing presidential.
However, while NATO allies may be looking for a quick, “do no harm” meeting to underscore continued U.S. commitment to the alliance, Trump will push hard on defense spending and securing more intelligence sharing and counterterrorism contributions in Syria and Afghanistan. In the absence of major deliverables, the trick for NATO allies will be to let Trump take the credit for implementing previously agreed upon decisions. Ultimately, Europeans will look for signs that Trump's heart is really in it and that he is not just viewing NATO through a transactional lens.
Ian BremmerPresident and founder of Eurasia Group
NATO has a Readiness Action Plan. I'm sure it doesn't include Trump.
If Trump's questioning of NATO's relevance and purpose lead the Europeans to take some leadership of reshaping (and yes, better funding) the organization, it would be a welcome development. But as we've seen from Trump's Xi summit and Middle East tour, America First is long on big talk and short on new thinking. It turns out there's not that much to prepare for.
Paul CornishChief strategist at Cityforum Public Policy Analysis Ltd
The “O” in NATO is indeed ready for the Trump Tsunami. NATO staff have, it seems, advised government leaders to keep their speeches extremely short—just two to four minutes—in order not to tax the poor man’s attention span. And if White House sources are anything to go by, NATO leaders should also mention Trump’s name from time to time—so that his mind doesn’t drift to the size of the crowd outside. NATO staff will hope that Trump doesn’t ask too many questions about the cost of the alliance’s new headquarters and will try to get away with an information-packed summit tweet rather than the traditional declaration.
But are NATO member countries ready for Trump? No. Bizarrely, many European governments persist in seeing Trump as a threat to their peaceful existence rather than the leader of their greatest ally. When in danger of being nudged out of their reverie, these governments show that their real skill lies in displacement activity—witness the establishment of the EU’s military planning and conduct capability, a fatuous distraction described recently as little more than a “call center.”
Trump’s imminent arrival in Brussels raises a larger question: are NATO’s European allies ready for strategy?
Alexandra de Hoop SchefferDirector of the Paris Office and senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Trump’s tactics have achieved in a few months what previous U.S. administrations have not succeeded to do in years: getting Europeans to focus on defense spending and investment.
However, NATO is not ready for Trump. The burden sharing debate has become highly toxic and politicized. America’s transactional approach marks a tendency to bilateralize relations and reduces member states’ commitment to NATO. The alliance is divided between those who seek to preserve their relationship with Washington—including the United Kingdom, as well as Central European, Baltic, and Nordic states—by rushing defense budget increases, and those—such as France and Germany—who diverge from the U.S. president by arguing for a more gradual and comprehensive approach to security. If the latter is perceived by the Trump administration as a pretext to not fulfill the 2 percent defense investment pledge, we can expect transatlantic tensions to increase and U.S. commitments in NATO to be reconsidered. At the same time, the United States is not providing a good example of burden sharing either, by cutting USAID and State department budgets.
To be a credible interlocutor for Trump, European allies need to develop a strategic construct for burden sharing by convincing publics that increasing defense spending is in their interest—and is not being done “because Trump wants it.” For that, both the EU and NATO need to think strategically—beyond summits and election cycles. Unfortunately, because this week’s “meeting” in Brussels is ridiculously brief, the opportunity to have such a conversation among allies will be lost.
Karl-Heinz KampPresident of the Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin
Some four months after taking office, the question is whether President Trump is ready for NATO—and whether he will ever be. Until now, the U.S. commander in chief has failed to understand what alliances in general and NATO in particular mean for America’s superpower status. It does not seem likely that he will in the future. The positions that Trump has taken on NATO so far have been snapshot views given at random—always one tweet away from being changed to the opposite.
The May 25 NATO leaders meeting will arguably be the shortest in history because Trump’s attention span allowed for just one session. As a result, key allies have started working around the president, focusing more on key figures in the U.S. administration like Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Necessary steps like increasing defense expenditures are taken not because the U.S. president pushes for them but because most member states understand the need for more investments.
It looks as if the alliance will continue to adapt to the new security environment with or without Trump’s leadership. The harsh truth is that the United States will remain indispensable for the future of NATO—the U.S. president might not.
This author has written in his personal capacity.
Julian Lindley-FrenchVice president of the Atlantic Treaty Association, senior fellow at the Institute of Statecraft, and director of Europa Analytica
President Trump will speak “BS” during this week’s visit to NATO—burden sharing. The United States provides almost 70 percent of the alliance force. So, what would be an acceptable burden sharing ratio for the Americans?
In an ideal world, the United States would have the right to expect their European allies to field forces that amount to at least 50 percent of NATO’s total. After all, the alliance is part of world security and world security is “guaranteed” by its only superpower—the United States. However, political realism suggests that it will be a push for Europeans to provide even 50 percent of the U.S. forces and resources currently committed to the defense of Europe.
NATO officials make much these days of the so-called defense investment pledge (DIP) to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, of which 20 percent each year should be on new investments. If Europeans met this commitment by 2024, as agreed, it would mean an extra $100 billion annually on defense spending. And yet a sound can be heard in Brussels these days. It is the sound of NATO nations sliding out of the DIP. Trump will not be the only one speaking BS in Brussels!
Jacek Saryusz-WolskiMember of the European Parliament
NATO allies should stop worrying about whether they are ready for President Trump. Instead, they should worry about whether Europe is ready to be a responsible partner of the United States and respect their own commitments to the defense effort. The American diplomatic-military machinery remains decisively transatlantic. It is high time for Europeans to reciprocate or be prepared to be left on their when it comes to security.
A more acute question would be how long NATO can withstand the growing military asymmetry across the Atlantic—and why has it fallen on Washington to remind Europeans that the alliance requires a proportional contribution?
Both the Wales and Warsaw NATO summits reaffirmed the 2 percent defense investment pledge. Yet even now, some prominent European allies question the need for a stronger defense commitment. They point instead to other foreign policy instruments employed by EU member states, like development cooperation. Noble and efficient as these tools may be, they serve a different purpose. The war on Europe’s Eastern doorstep and the instability in the Mediterranean are clear proof of civilian power limits.
If President Trump serves as a wakeup call for the alliance then NATO is not only ready for him—this push was badly needed years ago.
Julianne SmithDirector of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security
NATO leaders will discuss two subjects during their mini-summit this week: burden sharing and counterterrorism cooperation. On burden sharing, America’s European allies are ready to be challenged by President Trump and are planning on coming to the table with answers. They will no doubt remind the U.S. president that defense spending across Europe has increased since the 2014 Wales Summit. Individual countries will present him with plans to meet the 2 percent target in the coming years and highlight the progress they’ve made to date. Trump will declare victory, likely repeating that the “money is pouring in.”
But on the second subject of the meeting, the conversation will be harder. Europe is still waiting for some sense of what Washington has in mind when it says that NATO could do more on counterterrorism. Because Trump hasn’t staffed the State and Defense departments adequately, Washington hasn’t brought much to the table. How will Trump react to the fact that NATO won’t do much more than fold itself into the anti-ISIS coalition? We don’t know. Could he live tweet the discussions? Name and shame allies that oppose NATO doing more? Declare this is his last leaders meeting? We can’t be sure. But allies should be ready for anything.
Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy
NATO has largely meant the United States. So asking if NATO is ready for Trump depends almost entirely on America—and who knows which version of the U.S. president will show up in Brussels. Will he be the campaign Trump who believed that NATO is obsolete, or the slightly improved version who claims the alliance has finally reformed because of him? Apparently, candidate Trump had never heard the phrase, “burden sharing,” and had the idea that alliance members paid the United States for its contribution to their security, something close to a protection racket.
How does NATO respond? The model has been set by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in his masterful meeting earlier this year with the new American president: a combination of patience and education, along with some serious commitments to doing more for defense in the broader sense of the term. Tanks and aircraft matter, but so do cybersecurity, dealing with refugees, development assistance in areas of high tension, and counterterrorism.
Europeans should and will do more in their own defense, both within NATO and within the EU, given the erosion of the credibility of Washington’s commitment. In some respects, the best argument for more European defense is the new American administration.
Tomáš ValášekDirector of Carnegie Europe
Trump is a disrupter and hence trouble for NATO. Allies have recognized the danger and are responding sensibly: by removing any pretexts he may want to use to walk away from the alliance. The focus is therefore on boosting NATO's counterterrorism role and increasing defense spending (which is necessary with or without Trump.) Only a crisis will reveal whether the strategy has worked—and whether the United States under President Trump remains committed to the alliance. In the meantime, addressing U.S. concerns about NATO, along with patient buildup of Europe's capacity to defend itself, is the best strategy the allies have.
Alexander VershbowDistinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and former NATO deputy secretary general
NATO is as prepared as it can be for President Trump’s arrival, but there is still an understandable degree of nervousness and uncertainty about his intentions. Allies were reassured when the president recanted his previous statement that NATO was “obsolete.” This week, allies—especially in Central and Eastern Europe—will be eager for him to go a step further and reassert America’s unequivocal commitment to Article 5 and to a robust U.S. presence along the Eastern flank.
In exchange, President Trump will expect concrete commitments from European allies on burden sharing and defense spending. I believe the president will come away able to report at least some success, even if the trends were already improving before 2017, with many allies’ budgets already on a trajectory towards the 2 percent of GDP target by 2024.
Potential flash points between the U.S. president and European leaders include American demands to strengthen NATO deployments in Afghanistan and to beef up NATO's training mission in Iraq. European allies remain lukewarm about the optics and financial costs of NATO boots on the ground in the Middle East and will take some convincing on these points. Trump may need to settle for symbolic moves in the fight against terrorism, especially as two of his principal allies are in the middle of election campaigns.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
Can anyone be ever ready when preparing to face uncertainty? The challenge for NATO is how to cope with the unknown world of President Trump. As reassuring as recent statements from the U.S. administration have been, trust on the European side remains fragile.
Too many questions related to the alliance’s strategic goals are still unanswered. NATO’s strong stance on the current crisis in Ukraine leaves open the type of long-term relationship that the allies should define with Russia. The priority of fighting terrorism still needs a precise role for NATO to be tailored. As for joining the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq, this could kick off a new and uncertain wave of ground operations for NATO in the Middle East. No surprise, therefore, that for many U.S. partners the time has not yet come to depart from a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to Trump.
Because of its limited format, the May 25 NATO leaders meeting will provide no answers to European concerns. The talks will not dispel their apprehensions and may well increase their frustration. If only this meeting could spur European nations to more seriously consider how to enhance their own security, and with their own means, it will have been useful.