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NATO Summit

Tensions Among Allies

July 07, 2018 | by SEBASTIAN FEYOCK

President Donald J. Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the White House. Photo by The White House via flickr.com, Public Domain, https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/

In the run-up to the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11 and 12, the mood within the alliance is frosty. There is hardly any aspect of transatlantic cooperation where the U.S. and its NATO partners still see eye to eye.

The sense of transatlantic unity that characterized the summits of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Wales in 2014 and Warsaw in 2016 is now history. Last year, the eagerly awaited first meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and his European counterparts ended in a debacle. In previous years the international grouping had demonstrated its political and military cohesion but at the 2017 summit in Brussels no joint final document was prepared for the heads of state. There was too much uncertainty about whether the new U.S. leader would stand by NATO and its role – or whether he would destroy a painstakingly negotiated deal with a single tweet. Moreover, Trump unceremoniously erased from his speech a mention of the U.S.'s commitment to the mutual defense provision, Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which lies at the heart of NATO.

Since then a tense atmosphere has become even worse. While last year's differences of opinion could be brushed aside by calling the meeting an "interim summit", the conflicts around dealing with Iran, relations with Russia, as well as trade and climate issues are now crystal clear. Meanwhile, Trump merges economic and security policy issues and is no longer only fighting against global U.S. rivals such as Russia and China, but also against its traditional allies.

Tariffs and military spending

Trade tariffs on European steel and aluminum exports represent a new turn of events for U.S. allies. In addition, the latest U.S. economic sanctions on Iran are set to hurt its European partners, who Trump accuses of free-riding and treating the U.S. unfairly. The German government, among others, is a target of his criticism: Trump has called on Germany and others around Europe to slash their export surplus and to increase their national defense budgets.

The demand for higher European defense spending is nothing new, as President Barack Obama repeatedly made similar calls. What is new is that Trump tied the claim directly to the mutual defense commitment and, more recently, linked it to averting punitive tariffs. The demand is based on a voluntary commitment by all NATO states to raise their defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Germany last threw its weight behind that voluntary pledge during the 2014 summit, before Trump even went public with plans to run for the U.S. presidency. But meanwhile, there has only been limited progress towards this goal. In fact, only a few nations have reached the 2 percent target (in 2017 it was six countries, including Estonia and Poland, that have spent 2 percent of GDP on defense since 2015, and Romania, which reached the target as of 2017). Chancellor Angela Merkel recently signaled that the German government would increase its defense spending, moving towards a maximum of 1.5 rather than 2 percent of GDP by 2024. Even though the U.S. Department of Defense and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently welcomed the rising German defense budget, it remains to be seen whether Merkel’s statement will impress President Trump.

But for Trump it is not all about money. In particular, he and his ministers are urging countries to relieve the U.S. in its efforts towards the international fight against terrorism and its contribution to the architecture of global security. But joining military operations is not just down to a country’s finances or willingness. Rather, it involves to a protracted mentality change which is underway regarding military force. The pace of change is particularly slow in Germany and cannot be measured in defense expenditure alone.

Foreign policy with an eye on voters at home

But the fact remains that President Trump needs progress in his bid to share burdens across the Atlantic. After all, swift successes will enable him to deliver on one of his key election promises and thus protect his political standing. His encouragement to Europeans to beef up their contributions will be taken as proof of his negotiating skills. After all his 2016 election widely reflected his reputation as a "dealmaker". Moreover, he sees these successes as necessary to obstruct a democratic victory in the fast-approaching midterm congress elections in autumn 2018, as well as in the presidential elections in 2020.

Following this line of thinking, foreign policy successes could serve to distract from domestic policy problems. The Bertelsmann Stiftung's Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) U.S. Country Report 2018, which is not yet published, illustrates the eclectic range of obstacles which lie ahead for the U.S. government, including rising economic inequality, a dwindling middle class and a number of looming foreign policy conflicts. Trump inherited some of these problems from his predecessors. Others, such as the swelling of the already large budget deficit and the reform of the health system, have been exacerbated by the President's election promises and initiatives of the Republican-controlled Senate. The SGI country report therefore states: "The presidency of Donald Trump is itself, realistically, the major challenge facing the United States.”

To a greater extent than his predecessors, Trump conducts his foreign policy with a nod to voters at home, rather than reflecting the thinking of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. For U.S. allies this has kicked off a period of uncertainty about the reliability of their key partner as well as a rethink regarding how to deal with the Trump government. Despite this, Europeans have a vested interest in Trump's domestic success. If he fails to score at home it could spark a further decline in the U.S. interest in Europe. Trump has tapped into a seam of voters that is highly suspicious of international engagement and these attitudes will not disappear at the end of his term of office.

Despite his electorate’s skepticism towards American security guarantees, Trump has so far maintained U.S. contributions to European security. Since 2014, the U.S. armed forces have steadily strengthened and expanded their role in the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI), a trend which continued during Trump’s time in the White House. On the ground, the alliance therefore demonstrates a sense of unity, a fact which was underscored in 2014 with the establishment of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and which continued with the launch of rotating pre-stationing of NATO troops in the east of the alliance in 2016.

Worries ahead of the summit

Within NATO there is currently concern that the July gathering could end in disaster. And the G7 Summit in Canada recently showed that a joint final declaration does not necessarily guarantee the unity of the participants. At that summit of the seven biggest economies, Trump used Twitter to abruptly withdraw his approval of an already agreed final document. Trump’s ongoing admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian leadership, which has sparked calls for Russia to be added to the G7/8, irk Europeans who feel exposed to ongoing Russian aggression. Such an obvious clash among NATO partners could have repercussions for the credibility of NATO as a deterrent. After all, even if NATO were to deploy troops at its borders, credible military deterrence only works if it is underpinned by political unity.

But Europeans need U.S. support to preserve the security of their continent. In the foreseeable future, there is no credible Plan B to replace extensive U.S. involvement in the old continent. Conversely, there is also a clear U.S. interest in maintaining a stable and peaceful Europe, both militarily, so that its troops can be stationed to support the global reach of U.S. power, and in maintaining political support for American politics. Disputes over North Korea and a possible Iranian nuclear weapons program will not be resolved without Europe’s agreement.

These shared interests, which all too often are overlooked, form the foundations of NATO. To safeguard U.S. commitment to Europe, the allies must make credible offers towards sharing burdens, defense and showing willingness to join international operations. The planned NATO training mission in Iraq is one sign of members committing themselves. For this reason, the German government is also counting on creating a new NATO headquarters for military, mobility and logistics, in a bid to improve the organization’s defense capacity. In addition, it is essential that Canadians and Europeans meet their NATO commitments on operational capability and defense spending. If these are weakened due to domestic politics, it will only serve to weaken NATO itself. Only a visible strengthening of the European role within NATO combined with a serious political commitment by the U.S. towards European security will preserve NATO's credibility.

Sebastian Feyock is a freelance author and political advisor focusing on German and U.S. foreign and security policy and maritime security.

Translated from German by Jess Smee

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