It is a bit rich to hear Europeans insist that any Trump Administration doubts about NATO’s usefulness is heresy—given their occasional popular indifference to and ambiguity about the alliance.
In current journalistic groupthink, Donald Trump has endangered NATO by suggesting a) it does not have a clearly defined role and needs to find one for the 21st century; and b) the vast majority of European members have welched on their defense spending commitments, on the expectation that the U.S. defense budget would always take up the slack, protect Europe, and thus indirectly subsidize the European social welfare project.
No one really disputes the logic of Trump’s criticisms, only his supposed recklessness in daring to be so rude as to voice them.
But we forget that by the mid-2000s, especially after the invasion of Iraq, there was growing European unease with the trajectory of NATO. A different narrative was then in currency of a regrettable omnipresence of the United States (the “hyperpuissance”) within NATO. Hundreds of thousands of soft-power Europeans hit the streets to protest the Iraq War and hard-power American imperialism, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld earned furious pushback for characterizing Western NATO allies as “Old Europe.”
A European solution at a time of a strengthening euro and widespread loathing of George W. Bush was greater autonomy. The long overdue reification of an all-European Union defense agreement (“Common Security and Defence Policy”), would work side-by-side with NATO, but in truth draw indirectly European resources from it and eventually supersede the transatlantic alliance. We are still waiting to see the fruition of a European External Action Service; so far there are lots of impressive acronyms for various forces and programs, but no brigades in action.
What explains the rapid European about-face on NATO by 2017? A number of things:
1) Over a decade ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to many Europeans as growing into a likely benign figure (a “flawless democrat” in the words of then socialist German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder), much less worthy of criticism than was George W. Bush. Schröder himself, just weeks after he left the chancellorship, went to work for Nord Stream, the Russian Gazprom pipeline project. Now Putin, who formerly was supposed to be reasonable, has transmogrified into a land-grabbing existential threat. A U.S.-backed NATO is suddenly seen as a more viable deterrent than the once hyped European defense force; and the Cold War American-led relic is now seen as a vital Hot War American-led deterrent.
2) A decade ago the United States was a thirsty oil-importer dependent on Middle East energy, while Europe was next-door to an oil-rich Russia, which increasingly was seen as an asset in a way the energy-short U.S. was not. Now America is the largest energy producer in the world, soon to be a natural gas and coal exporter, and is immune from Middle East oil chaos in a way a petrol-short Europe is not, especially given the worrisome implosion of the Middle East between 2011 and 2016 and the rise of a hostile and unreliable oil-exporting Russia.
3) The shaky European Union of today is not the confident EU paradigm of a decade ago, which, in Robert Kagan’s formulation, played more a fun-loving Venus to our arms-obsessed Mars. The euro has been weakening, not strengthening. The north-south financial crisis has been papered over, but not resolved. Global sympathies have shifted somewhat, from a “they got what they deserved” feeling about the often deceptive and undisciplined southern Mediterranean debtor nations to a more nuanced view that the lender Germany has gamed the EU for its own trade advantages, monopolizing through its exports a highly regulated European market and relying on weaker EU states to keep the value of the euro lower than a free-floating Deutsche Mark would have been.
The immigration disaster, advanced by the naiveté of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has fueled populist pushbacks against German immigration policy throughout the EU. Currently, the European economy is anemic and ossified. Turkey is no longer seen as a future EU member and protector of NATO’s southern flank, but rather a neo-Ottoman belligerent that considers fellow European NATO allies all but enemies. Given all that, the idea of NATO is now once again seen by European elites as essential in a way it was growing optional a decade ago, when European media caricatured the organization as moral cover for U.S. adventurism and imperialism. Brexit, and the United Kingdom’s reinvestment in its navy, are hints that bilateral relations could extend to two-party defense pacts.
4) Past European ankle-biting about NATO was part and parcel of an asymmetrical transatlantic relationship, sharpened during the Reagan years, in which Europe characteristically distanced itself from the United States, on the assumption that U.S. bipartisan postwar “wise men” would merely grimace a bit and press on with ensuring the costly military subsidies of Europe.
Indeed, Europe, militarily dependent on America during the Cold War, had rhetorically reinvented the dependency as one that served more selfish U.S. Cold War strategic interests to the point that U.S. bases on European soil were supposedly neocolonial outposts. (During the 1973 Yom Kippur War some European NATO members denied the U.S. the use of airspace to resupply an endangered democratic Israel, while letting Soviet transports to Egypt and Syria fly over some NATO nations; when I lived in Greece, weekend demonstrations started off with the obligatory chant Ekso Nato!). During the 1983 Pershing Missile crisis, the Reagan administration was sometimes seen by European leftists as more the aggressor against than the protector of Europe.
But now? The outsider Trump is no globalist Bill Clinton or internationalist George W. Bush. Instead, he’s seen as wildly unpredictable. Trump appears to the Europeans as the first U.S. president who might well react to European mantras about outsized American influence in European affairs, with an almost happy, “So long, it’s been good to know you” attitude. Past U.S. presidents, even after the Cold War, accepted that a U.S.-led NATO (“America in”) was critical to confining an always powerful Russia to its own territory (“Russia out”), while dealing with the age-old “German problem” (“Germany down”) of continental aggression that had led to three European wars.
Yet Lord Hasting Ismay’s original tripartite Russia-America-Germany formulation for NATO by the 21st century was looked upon as outdated and simplistic jargon.
Not anymore. Ismay seems prescient again. Fears of an imperious and domineering Germany have returned, along with worries about Russian unpredictability, both of which require America to be engaged as never before—and all of which has stopped dead European parlor talk of U.S. hegemony over NATO and replaced it with “don’t even dare think we don’t need you” desperation.
The existential threats to NATO are not Donald Trump’s, but rather the continuing European lack of confidence that it can create a peaceful, democratic, and secure continent that does not once again devour itself, along with its own chronic reneging on promised military contributions.
Ironically, Trump’s herky-jerky warnings about redefining strategic missions and meeting required contributions may jolt the alliance into reform—in a way that past American presidents’ mellifluous but empty rhetoric about the fissures within and the contradictions of NATO seem to have only made things worse.