Trump, NATO and Shaping a Way Ahead


2017-05-28 By Robbin Laird

President Trump is certainly not a laid back type of leader.

Then again he would not have been elected if he was, given the nature of the evolving U.S. political process.

He also was elected much like his predecessor with regard to domestic issues.

President Obama promised “Change You Could Believe In” and President Trump promised to “Make America Great Again.”

During his campaign, President Trump said many things but with regard to foreign policy the core theme was the defeat of ISIS and this has been the most compelling part of his narrative as President with regard to foreign and defense policy.

This was clearly on display during his first foreign trip.

Trump at G-7. Credit Photo: Reuters

During his Presidency, the issue of North Korea has emerged a core issue as well so that to date, the two issues, how to respond to a rising nuclear power and how to defeat a dispersed terrorist enemy have come to the top of his operational agenda.

The North Korean issue was not raised at NATO but was raised at the G-7 which provides its own comment with regard to NATO and its focus on critical defense issues. 

When President Reagan came to office, the East-West conflict was coming to the fore and was expressed in the Euro-missile crisis. The President pushed nuclear modernization within a contested European environment as the litmus test of NATO solidarity to deflect and defeat Soviet pressure.

President Trump’s version of this has been different, namely, focusing the Alliance on the defeat of ISIS and key European states providing greater means and capabilities for their own defense.

During my visit to Norway this year, the Norwegians went out of their way to highlight the importance of Article III as a keystone for providing engagement capabilities for core allies to come to their aid in times of crisis.

Not insignificantly, having modern defense capabilities also helps Norway to play a credible role in the defense of other NATO partners.

Danny Lam has highlighted the importance of Article III in any evaluation of the way ahead with regard to Europe and defense.

President Trump could have addressed this issue of persistent dishonesty by unilaterally initiating the preparation of a semiannual annual report by US-DoD on every NATO member that rates their performance on meeting Article 3 obligations.    

 A report that would publically identify the threats facing each NATO member, and assess what they have done and actual readiness and preparedness to mitigate the threat. These facts, independently compiled by DoD, can be considered as a factor like progress toward 2% GDP spending in any consideration of Article 5 obligations beyond the requirement for “consultations”.

A semiannual Article 3 Report on every NATO member would be a much better gauge now that members have taken the lead in using Arthur-Anderson accounting. If exhortations to do the right thing have no effect, perhaps public shaming semi-annually to their electorate can do better.

 At some future point, the Article 3 reports might delve into the capacity, readiness and willingness of NATO members to come to the aid of the United States, e.g., in the Pacific theater.

Wouldn’t it be a revelation and revolutionary for NATO obligations to be truly mutual?

Putting aside President Trump, fundamental changes are afoot which are dramatically changing the context facing NATO and altering forever how key European nations will deal or not with their defense.

There is no given that key European states will indeed deal with their defense, and the United States under whatever President will then have to come to terms with those states who are indeed approaching defense and security in a way congenial to how the United States can in fact protect its interests.

Put bluntly, Article V is not a given in the real world as opposed to the policy wonk world.

Amazingly, The New York Times editorial board went after President Trump on the grounds virtually that it is a given.

President Trump’s first NATO meeting was the moment to show that he would honor the example of his predecessors in leading a strong and unified alliance that has been and should remain the anchor of Western security.

He failed.

Instead of explicitly endorsing the mutual defense pledge at the heart of the alliance, Mr. Trump lectured the members for falling short on pledges to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic products on the military, much as he had hectored them on this subject during his presidential campaign. There were signs, too, that Mr. Trump and the allies remain at odds over Russia, which is deeply unsettling given mounting questions about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Mr. Trump has a point when he says the allies should increase their military budgets, which they have started to do, partly in response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

But his obsession with the matter has reinforced the impression that he sees NATO as essentially a transactional arrangement, not as an indisputably important alliance that has kept the peace for 70 years and whose value cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Against this history, Mr. Trump’s repeated scolds are not just condescending but embarrassing.

NATO is a transactional entity just like every other treaty.

And the continued expansion of NATO was always a bet that somehow the Russians would not call into question the very, very uncertain relationship between expanding the territory covered by the treaty with the declining assets available to provide for expanded NATO defense.

This bet rested on a weak Russia and the absence of a direct threat to the expanded NATO treaty territory.

This bet has been lost.

Russia has returned to the table and although sanctions are in place, what military moves might the Chancellor Germany wish to initiate if the Russians move against the Baltic states?

Not President Trump, but Chancellor Merkel what are your operative plans for defeating a Russian maneuver force?

NATO has been changed beyond recognition by its expansion East, by the land wars in the Middle East, and by the engagement in the Middle East, which amazingly is considered out of area by NATO.

There is little real continuity between the organization designed to fight the Soviet Union occupying much of Europe and NATO today.

That means as well the management of interests among the member states can not be in any real way managed the same way by the United States or the larger member states.

And the exit of Britain from the European Union certainly raises fundamental questions as well about defense and security relationships within Europe.

President Trump’s questioning of the way ahead certainly makes sense but has not been put as a Kissinger or Brzezinski might have put it; but we need more effective considerations of how best to shape that way ahead worthy of a fundamental strategic rethink.

The Article III consideration is as a good a way to start the refocusing as any.

If we were to apply Article III to the Germans we would find a very serious void at the center of Europe.

From left, British Prime Minister Theresa May, U.S. President Donald Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg listen to Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel as he speaks during a working dinner meeting at the NATO headquarters during a NATO summit meeting.

Germany in no way could defend itself and has no plans really to do so.

Forget 2% which the Germans will not meet any time soon – if they were serious about self defense and one useful to alliance commitments it would not be too difficult to sketch out.

Namely, significant strengthening of its air force and its ability to integrate with a significant missile defense capability would be the core of its ability to defend itself, and to provide significant inputs to Polish and Baltic defense.

And it is about defense not some offensive thrust against Russia.

This would requires a significant commitment to modernizing Eurofighter, adding a new combat air capability able to integrate ground based missile systems with air systems, and a rapid and significant build out of MEADS or similar systems.

And oh by the way all of this is already being built in Germany or could be augmented with new European or alliance systems.

And the impact of Brexit is significant as well in changing the Alliance calculus.

What will be the relationship of Brexit Britain to the defense of the continent?

The question of Britain’s defense relationship with continental Europe is a question with a very long history, but now Brexit will write a new chapter.

The French military have relied on their relationship with Britain and the United States as key ones to shape their own more advanced warfighting capabilities.

President Macron has been hugging the Chancellor of Germany, but which outcome comes to play.

What will be the outcome of this love fest: France looking like today’s German defense structure or Germany becoming more Article III compliant?

And although for The New York Times this would count as a Trump obsession, as a person who also lives in Paris, this matters a great deal to me.

And the major question hanging over all of this for Trump is the same as Reagan ironically, how to deal with the Russian nuclear threat?

And now we have the Second Nuclear Age nuclear powers entering the calculation as well, which very few European analysts and governments are prepared in any way to contemplate, and as de Gaulle posed many years ago, the nuclear dimension always raises fundamental questions concerning self-defense.

In an interesting comment on the recent NATO meetings, two European analysts not only decided to roast Trump, but also argued for expanded European versus NATO defense but conveniently left out of the discussion nuclear issues.

The reason this is so important is that if the US is not reliable and the Brits are exiting Europe, then that leaves the French who have NEVER been willing to commit their nuclear deterrent to broader European defense.

And does anyone really expect President Macron to invest in an expanded defense let alone nuclear defense structure?

According to Olivier de France and Sophia Besch, “There is some discomfort in Europe at the protection racket approach Trump is applying to Nato, and the idea of increasing military spending to please him is playing out to the detriment of European defence.”

So how to get beyond the Trump “protection racket?”

Would it not be possible to come up with a European metric that looks to European aims and interests, is forward looking, output-focused and creates consensus on both side of the Rhine? 

By setting their own targets and indicators, European leaders might help curtail anti-American sentiments, not to mention the suspicion they are feeding into American industrial interests. 

A European metric would give Europe some leg-room to build a narrative that is in line with its own world view, one that thinks of security as more than a military matter, and would help to make the case for spending more on security and defence.

And lest you wonder what kind of defense capabilities you would get, here is the answer:

This year could be the year to kick off a European debate that goes beyond the 2 percent and looks to European priorities. 

It might trigger a broader rethink about different European national security identities: countries with conventional conflict at their borders could spend more on territorial defence, countries that are particularly affected by the refugee crisis could include their contributions, countries with interests abroad might want to focus on peacekeeping missions.

US President Donald Trump, right, reacts as he sits next to Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May, centre and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they participate in a working dinner meeting, during the NATO summit of heads of state and government, at the NATO headquarters, in Brussels on Thursday, May 25, 2017. US President Donald Trump inaugurated the new headquarters during a ceremony on Thursday with other heads of state and government. (Thierry Charlier/Pool Photo via AP) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Put in blunt terms, you eliminate the nuclear problem but simply not discussing it.

And how does such a rag tag collection of “capabilities” add up to a military force for the defense of Europe?

Perhaps the answer lies in constructing a nice new building for graduates of ENA and other Eurocrats.

And then we face the other aspect of the fundamental shift facing Europe, namely the rewriting of borders in the Middle East.

Europe has a long history of Middle Eastern engagement and map writing – indeed Europe wrote most of the borders in the contemporary Middle East.

And the battle against ISIS which Trump is prioritizing is also about the rewriting of borders and coming to terms with the two dynamic national entities in the Middle East pushing from each end of the region to reshape their influence and reach – namely Turkey and Iran.

Neither state is performing up to “European value” standards but they are the key states who will rewrite the terms of reference for the region in the wake of the defeat of ISIS.

How to come to terms with states in evolution politically to sort out common interests to shape an effective regional situation?

What is the European defense strategy to deal with Iran and Turkey?

How will Europe deal with Russia and the United States and China for that matter as outside powers who will be key players in dealing with Turkey and Iran and part of the reshaping function?

The problem for NATO is that is not simply an effective organization to deal with these kinds of questions regardless of whatever Trump does or does not do.

It is time to get past the Trump news focus and get real about the fundamental challenges facing Europe where Trump may seem an irritant but not a cause.

Editor’s Note: Chancellor Merkel in the run up to the German elections in the Fall is clearly playing on both Trump America and Brexit Britain to augment her role within continental Europe as a whole. 

Angela Merkel has suggested Germany and Europe can no longer rely on the US under Donald Trump.

Speaking at a campaign event held in a Bavarian beer tent, the German Chancellor emphasised the need for friendly relations with the US, Britain and Russia, but added: “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.” 

Ms Merkel said that as the traditional western alliance is threatened by the new US presidency and Brexit, “the times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days.”

While Germany and Europe would strive to maintain relations with the US and Britain, Ms Merkel said, “we need to know we must fight for our own future as Europeans for our destiny.”

It is also the case that within Germany, there is very uncertain support for shifting resources to defense and providing for the broader defense of the alliance.

And this has little or nothing to do with the Trump phenomenon — it is much more fundamental in terms of the German approach to defense and security in 21st century Europe.

A very revealing comment was made in a recent Spiegel article addressing the question of how ought NATO to address the Russian threat:

The situation today is altogether different.

The NATO staffer points to northern Norway at the top of the map and then moves to the right, across the Baltic Sea to the Baltic states, Poland and, finally, down to Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.

It is an enormously long line stretching from the Arctic Circle to the eastern reaches of the Black Sea. Such is the external borders of the NATO alliance today – and it is a difficult one to defend.

The alliance has prepared several deployment plans. There is one for the Baltic region, in the event that Russia attempts to replicate its operation in Ukraine there.

There is also one for Romania and Bulgaria, in case the onslaught comes across the Black Sea. Plans are still being developed for Turkey and northern Norway.

Norway? Really?

Yes, the NATO official confirms.

The Norwegian government is keeping a close eye on the Russian military, the official says — the exercises, troop movements, the submarines, the ships, the aircraft.

In Germany, few are paying attention.

For a look at Trump channeling his inner deGaulle during the campaign see the following:

The Second Nuclear Age and American Security: Trump Channels His Inner De Gaulle