November 24, 2020

Trump’s Mixed NATO Legacy

The Trumpian wrecking ball has caused serious damage to NATO. But the US president’s antipathy to the transatlantic alliance has also set overdue reforms in motion. A new burden-sharing metric and a China policy are priorities.

Jens Stoltenberg and Donald Trump
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NATO survived Donald Trump’s presidency—just. At several points Trump reportedly toyed with the idea of withdrawing the United States from the alliance. Even if Congress had formally prevented it, the symbolic damage would have been profound and possibly irrevocable.

Short of leaving, the US president proved destructive to NATO unity. His divisive rhetoric toward fellow allied leaders, notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel, widened existing transatlantic rifts. Trump’s transactional approach to collective defense undermined the credibility of NATO’s deterrence. His unilateral foreign policy decisions to repudiate the Iran nuclear deal and impose extraterritorial sanctions, withdraw US troops from Syria and Germany, and terminate arms control deals like the INF Treaty flew in the face of Europe’s interests. And the US president’s likening of the EU to China (“just smaller”), while cozying up to autocrats around the world shook the foundation of an alliance based on shared values.

It is therefore conventional wisdom that Trump has undermined the transatlantic alliance. But this is not unequivocally true. Thanks to the astute diplomacy of Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and supportive US actors beyond the White House, Trump did not derail crucial progress on NATO’s Readiness Initiative or its rotational Enhanced Forward Presence, which have bolstered NATO’s defense and deterrence posture toward Russia. Somewhat counterintuitively, Trump’s brazen transactionalism also instilled much needed momentum into the burden-sharing debate and contributed to rising defense spending. And the Trump administration’s strategic shift toward great power competition rightly pressured NATO to engage with the security implications of China’s rise. Thus, Trump’s decidedly mixed NATO legacy offers some starting points for a more constructive transatlantic cooperation.

Goalposts Moved

It would be a fallacy, however, to think that with the arrival of the Biden administration Europe can return to the old days of shifting security responsibilities to the US. Trump has moved the goalposts on US military engagement abroad, on European contributions, and on China, and the Biden administration will not be able to afford any propensity for nostalgia. NATO now needs to reform to prove that it is relevant to both the European NATO members and the US. And this may be its last chance. Support for NATO is no longer bipartisan in the US as the Trumpian Republican Party and the left wing of the Democrats both converge in their opposition to the extension of US security guarantees.

Even if intellectually attractive, the EU will not muster the military capabilities, not to mention the political will, to replace the US security guarantees in the foreseeable future. While EU defense integration has picked up since 2016 with initiatives such as the European Defense Fund, the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defense, during recent budgetary negotiations member states failed to provide sufficient funding for these efforts.

Rather than engaging in elusive debates between “Europeanists” and “Atlanticists,” epitomized by the latest bickering between French President Emanuel Macron and German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on the semantics of strategic autonomy, the EU needs to become a more capable actor in order to—not instead of—cooperate closely with the US. It is thus in Europe’s interest to keep the Americans in the alliance and the onus is on the European NATO members to seize the momentum. Two immediate priorities stand out.

First, Europe, and in particular Germany, should propose a new deal on burden-sharing. Trump, like his predecessors, rightly criticized several NATO members for inadequate defense spending, even if it has increased across the alliance since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, the pledge at the Wales NATO summit shortly thereafter, whereby all member states committed to move toward spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense, is an inexpedient metric to capture allied commitment to NATO’s defense and security priorities.

Spend Smarter

For one, the 2-percent rule is an arbitrary measure of defense contribution. The COVID-19 pandemic means that if the defense budgets remain the same, admittedly a big if, member states will significantly increase their relative contributions due to contracting economies. Moreover, the 2 percent assumes that all defense spending is dedicated to NATO purposes. While the US, for instance, unequivocally spends much on defense, some of it does not serve NATO missions or interests. 

For another, the 2-percent rule is disconnected from actual capability needs. As a report by the Center of Strategic and International Studies shows, the correlation between the level of spending and maintaining adequate force levels is tenuous. In other words, spending more is not always better for real military contributions as defense spending in Europe is characterized by inefficiency and ineffectiveness. By way of example, EU member states operate 187 major weapon systems and have 17 different types of tanks as opposed to 30 weaons systems and one type of tank in the US respectively. The 2-percent rule thus obfuscates the much needed rationalization of NATO defense spending, the need for which is reinforced by the fact that COVID-19 will shift budgetary priorities away from defense toward health and social provisions.

Last, the 2-percent rule conceives burden-sharing as extremely narrow by excluding spending that makes significant contributions to allied security such as actual troop deployment, development assistance, asymmetric exposure to sanctions (Eastern European states carry a much greater burden of the sanctions on Russia than for example the US) or combating climate change.

Europeans should propose a new burden-sharing metric that reflects a broader notion of security and is tailored to outputs and capabilities for concrete NATO tasks. Americans will be skeptical and view this proposal as the latest European attempt to avoid fairer burden-sharing. Thus, to have any credibility in Washington, Germany in particular needs to walk the walk. It should invest more in new military equipment (it does not meet the commitment to spend 20 percent of its defense budget on it either), infrastructure that can be used for NATO troop mobility, and push for greater EU cooperation on defense that would also enhance NATO capabilities. European NATO should also increasingly shoulder the immediate defense burden in conflicts in Europe and its neighborhood (for example by taking over the air defense of the Baltics) to justify the US remaining the security guarantor of last resort.

The second priority should be developing a NATO China policy. Most European NATO members have long disagreed with the US view that China’s risk poses a security risk to liberal democracies, despite a litany of evidence to the contrary. But the ground is shifting. Even in Germany and the UK, two of China’s closest partners in Europe, senior policymakers increasingly view Chinese investment in critical infrastructure in Europe and the Mediterranean, the propping up of authoritarian regimes, cyberattacks, the military alliance with Russia, and saber-rattling around Taiwan and in the South China Sea as potential threats to European security.

China’s Rise

Europe’s partial convergence with the US on China provides opportunities for greater transatlantic cooperation through NATO. In December 2019, NATO leaders for the first time acknowledged China’s relevance for the alliance in a summit declaration, but policy consequences are yet to materialize. While it is unfeasible that European NATO members will reinforce the US military presence in East Asia to contain China, NATO can still make tangible and mutually beneficial contributions.

NATO can be a forum of discussion where the allies can share intelligence and forge common views on the geopolitical consequences of China’s rise. Modelled on its partnership with Finland and Sweden, NATO should also intensify its bilateral relations with democratic powers in the region, most importantly Japan and Australia. More consultations should lead to more joint exercises, planning, and intelligence sharing. Integrating it into NATO’s defense planning would also strengthen transatlantic understanding of the threats posed by China and increase the efficiency and coordination of defense investment.

By making China a central subject of NATO, the Europeans can hit two birds with one stone. They would not only advance their own interests by limiting China’s increasing geopolitical reach and gaining influence on the US’s China policy, but they would also send a strong signal that Europe can be more than a security-taker and actually contribute to enhancing US security interests.

For all his destructiveness, Trump’s wrecking ball may lead to the much-needed renovation of NATO’s house by reconstituting the transatlantic bargain. Keeping the US committed to NATO should not be an end in itself. But as long as Europe relies on the US security guarantees to deter Russia and wants to limit China’s subversion of the liberal order, Europe needs the US. Greater burden-sharing among allies and burden-shifting to China is needed to convince the US of the continued relevance of NATO. Otherwise, Trump’s views on NATO risk becoming the consensus in Washington. 

Leonard Schütte is a researcher at Maastricht University.