NATO’s problem is political, not strategic


THE recent NATO summit that took place in Brussels on 11-12 July ended with an effusive endorsement of the Alliance by the man who many feared had come to blow it up. “Now we’re very happy”, President Trump said in his concluding press conference before adding that “the United States was not being treated fairly but now we are”, and that “I believe in NATO, I think NATO is a very important, probably the greatest ever done [sic]”. There was much more in this vein as the president extolled the “great unity, great spirit, great esprit de corps” achieved amongst the Alliance leaders during “a fantastic two days” – and the “$33 billion” extra cash he claimed to have extracted for NATO from its members.

The way the NATO clouds suddenly parted to let this shaft of sunlight through will not have assuaged too many European concerns, however. The president’s repeated pre-summit attacks on several NATO allies over defence spending, on the EU over trade, and especially on Germany over Nord Stream 2, have cut deep into the fabric of transatlantic relations (to say nothing of what then passed in Helsinki between Messrs Trump and Putin). Not only has trust in the US collapsed, but many in Europe now perceive Mr Trump’s America as an actively hostile state. This is new, and the risk of such sentiments developing into a self-fulfilling prophecy cannot be overstated.

The paradox at the heart of this crisis is that NATO is actually in a very good military shape and about to be further strengthened – a fact borne out by the measures announced in the Brussels Summit Declaration. Top of the list is the Alliance’s new NATO Readiness Initiative comprising an additional “30 major naval combatants, 30 heavy or medium manoeuvre battalions, and 30 kinetic air squadrons, with enabling forces, at 30 days’ readiness or less”. There is also a new Enablement Plan for the logistics of moving troops and equipment around NATO’s territory and this is now backed by a new Joint Support and Enabling Command in Germany. Another new Joint Force Command, based in the US, will focus on maritime operations in the North Atlantic. Furthermore, the Rapid Air Mobility initiative has become operational, a new Joint Air Power Strategy has been drawn up, and a decision has been taken to develop NATO’s first Space Policy. The latter is a particularly timely measure given the escalating strategic competition – and insecurity – in outer space. (The recent American drive to establish a new US Space Force gives an indication of how critical this warfighting domain is becoming in the 21st century.)

Perhaps most significantly, for all his past critical language towards NATO, this time Mr Trump actually signed off on a de facto extension of Article 5, with the Summit Declaration stating that “In cases of hybrid warfare, the Council could decide to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, as in the case of armed attack.”  Nor is this decision an outlier in the Trump administration’s NATO policy. Under Donald Trump, the US has so far allocated an extra $11 billion to fund its military response to Russian activities through the Pentagon’s European Reassurance Initiative (recently renamed the European Deterrence Initiative, or EDI). In the president’s first year of office the funding increased by 41% to $4.8 billion, and the second year is seeing a 35% increase taking the total EDI budget to $6.5 billion. Considered purely on its factual merits, the Trump administration’s NATO policy has been surprisingly robust and in stark contrast with some of the presidential rhetoric on the topic.

The current transatlantic upheaval, therefore, is not caused by fundamental military-strategic differences of view between Europe and the United States. Indeed, some of the most salient and persistent themes developing during the Trump presidency have been the designation of countries like China and Russia as “rival powers” and strategic competitors, coupled with a recurrent emphasis on the need to defend “the West”. The president’s definitions of such notions – as well as his motives – are widely questioned and appear to be rather fluid, but on balance they arguably remain closer to more classic power-based patterns of Western strategic thinking than to anything else.

Therefore, rather than being strategic, the long-term issue facing NATO is inherently political in nature. The alliance’s internal political coherence is under unprecedented strain from mutual recriminations, US heavy-handedness on trade, and suspicion. In the meantime, it is true that Mr Trump’s new opening to Russia (its unfortunate optics aside) does hold the potential to lead to a strategic postural shift towards détente – but, again, this would technically be very familiar ground for the Western alliance, starting with Willy Brandt’s 1960s Ostpolitik and ending with Barack Obama’s 2009 “Reset” or indeed Frank-Walter Steinmeier's solo attempt at détente in 2016 via arms control while serving as Germany’s foreign minister. By themselves, moves towards détente are not inconsistent with NATO’s core mission; but the political meaning they acquire can lead to major crises between Allies.

NATO’s political problem requires political solutions, however hard and even uncomfortable this endeavour might be in practice. The great danger, at present, is the lure of imaginary strategic alternatives for Europe, including calls for it to “go its own way” or “plan for defence without NATO”. At the end of the day, there is no viable successor to NATO as the guarantor of European security or the foundation stone of transatlantic unity.

The uncompromising reality for NATO allies is that their best bet is to work with what they’ve got and never lose sight of their higher interest: keeping the United States firmly anchored in the Alliance. Unless and until Mr Trump’s America starts taking actual policy decisions that actively threaten the strategic interests and security of other NATO members – and on this score, as already indicated, this administration cannot yet be faulted – allies should check their more radical political instincts, or else risk the Alliance itself. If this sounds a bit like a game of Russian roulette, it might well be just that.


Gabriel Elefteriu is Senior Defence Fellow at Policy Exchange. All views expressed in this article are strictly personal. 

Gabriel Elefteriu