The US elections 2016 have generated a host of significant concerns and misgivings. At the heart lies the biggest one of all: Will Donald Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office reshuffle the cards for transatlantic diplomacy and European security?
Trump comes to power when NATO is witnessing “[Russian] larceny and aggression not seen in Europe in seventy years” as former US Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns encapsulated the situation. Trump’s victory means his viewpoints are more than just marginal sentiments.
In his farewell speech to NATO in Brussels before his retirement as US Secretary of Defense in 2011, Robert Gates had emphasized a tough-love message to Washington’s NATO partners. Gates had warned about the “real possibility for a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic Alliance”, stemming from the American establishment and public alike losing interest in NATO. Academic argument echoes such views: In his 2014 book titled “Restraint – A New Foundation for US Grand Strategy”, MIT professor Barry Posen suggested immense cut backs to US involvement in Europe and East Asia, even extending his argument to US allies (Germany and Japan) acquiring nuclear weapons. Trump made the essence of Gates’ speech and Posen’s proposition a core pillar of his political campaign. Trump has merely reiterated what others had already predicted: That Europe (and other US allies such as South Korea and Japan) would need to make hard-hitting political choices and sizable investments for Washington to remain its key ‘go-to’ partner. Even President Obama is clear on the US no longer rushing to fix European security issues.
NATO really matters. It is not just an alliance: its institution marked a watershed moment in American and European foreign policy accomplishments when Europe’s demons of war were finally conquered. NATO began what former US President George H.W. Bush proclaimed as the “Whole, Free and at Peace” era of Europe, with the subsidence of communism, the unification of Germany, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Today, it serves as a reminder of who emerged victorious in the global wars and major crisis. Its very collapse would signal a marked turn of events in the present encrusted world order, something core NATO allies would be unreceptive towards yet, something that is arguably already happening. A NATO collapse would formalize this shift.
Traditionally, the US leads NATO. The incoming Oval Office recognizes that without Washington, NATO is brutum fulmen: NATO becomes almost irrelevant in facing the challenges of a globalized world without Washington at its helm. America is what makes NATO’s Article 5 (the Collective Defense Guarantee) credible. The US remains the essential partner to anchor NATO and the only country capable of providing effective transatlantic leadership. Neither Germany nor France nor the UK can sustain a vigorous and meaningful NATO without a committed United States.
NATO is the hallmark of Washington’s foreign policy ambitions, serving as a force multiplier for US hard and soft power. To consider the relevance of NATO in its transatlantic relations, any US administration will need to acknowledge that Europe is experiencing a daunting and mercurial security environment, essentially the result of five intertwined challenges.
The first challenge is Russian (Vladimir Putin’s) aggression, particularly, Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russo-Georgian conflict of 2008, and Moscow’s harassment of the Baltic States. Backed by seemingly hostile measures (contentious flybys of Russian Tupelo and Blackjack bombers and intrusive advances of the Northern Fleet that includes the Russian aircraft-carrier Admiral Kuznetsov), Moscow’s aggression threatens what President Obama describes as “our [US] vision of a Europe that is whole, free and at peace”. The second is a dangerously weakening EU heading towards potential fracture, fiercely exacerbated by Brexit in 2016. The third encompasses the metastasis of violence and terrorism, with ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks reaching the capitals of Europe, including Brussels and Paris. The fourth challenge, sharply allied to the third, points to the waves of migrants seeking refuge in Europe. The fifth is the hazy, wavering, and at times, unconfident Euro-American leadership against the aforementioned challenges.
Ultimately, such perilous risks press for a reaffirmation and recommitment to one of America’s truest bipartisan objectives: “a secure, durable, strengthened American link to Europe’s future and Europe’s success”. Or in other words, a re-dedication to NATO.
Yet, Russia threatens none of America’s vital interests directly. On the contrary, Moscow has exhibited American eagerness to campaign against terrorism and restrain global nuclear threats. As such, the US must balance its own and NATO’s perspective on Russia, rather than either only viewing Moscow as a destabilizing force in Europe or as merely defending its borders. NATO perceives the Russian problem with a military lens as it should; NATO is a military organization managed by military officials. It employs sabre-rattling tactics to flash the latest Euro-American military gadgets in Moscow’s face. However, American issues with Moscow are political rather than military. NATO cannot serve the diplomatic interests of Washington to negotiate politically with Moscow. Journalist Stephen Kinzer aptly describes NATO as “a blunt instrument unequipped for such a delicate task”, lacking the prerequisite “creative diplomacy” to ease US-Russian relations. It is the EU, not NATO that is more political in nature and has had solid diplomatic success: recall the Minsk Agreement (between Ukraine and Russia) and the Iran Deal.
Vladimir Putin is a shrewd operator. He recognizes the vacuum the US President-elect’s obscure NATO statements have created. The incoming US administration’s policy ambiguity provides cover under which Moscow can make more assertive advances in the Eastern European and Levant corridors. This only further urges transatlantic partners to exhibit dynamic diplomacy rather than engage in military stratagems.
For its part, Europe needs to really stand up in Brussels. Achieving the EU average of 1.5% of GDP allocated to defence is not an implausible target for each NATO state. Presently, only five of the 28 NATO countries are spending in excess of NATO’s minimum of 2% of GDP on defence. Additionally, Europe must transition from defence partnership (having interoperable forces) to defence integration (having a single defence force).
In case Washington withdraws from the Iran agreement, it is highly unlikely Europe will follow suit: The Iranian market offers manifold profits to European companies while the EU has invested precious diplomatic resources to let the Iranian Deal fade away. What Europe needs to be wary of is a possible quid pro quo between Washington and Moscow at Brussel’s expense, especially as Putin’s will to compromise is likely to decline in light of a more gracious White House. Furthermore, it appears unlikely that Russia will accept any Syrian deal that does not involve Iran: Putin will not forgo an opportunity to forge a power play with Tehran. However, Brussels negotiating any deal with Moscow over Syria concerning Iran will alienate Washington. Choosing between a deal on Syria involving Iran or no deal whatsoever is a crossroad Europe is likely to find itself at in the near future.
Europe has its work cut out. Putin has his strategic gambits set up. Ultimately, the incoming US administration’s underlying challenge regarding transatlantic relations will be detaching and estimating when Russia is a NATO problem versus when Russia is a European-only (and not an American) issue; somewhere in between lies the extent of America’s re-dedication to NATO under the Trump administration.