NATO’s enlargement toward the former communist states in Central and Eastern Europe, its undertaking of out-of-area military operations beyond Europe, its identification of new security threats and adoption of new strategies in line with globalization, and its transformation into an expeditionary alliance in the post-9/11 era have not concealed serious ruptures among its members.
The U.S. has long perceived the alliance mainly as a force multiplier, whereas its European allies tried to make sure that NATO would provide them with institutional capabilities to help shape American priorities and policies. While the U.S. argued for NATO’s globalization in the post-Cold War era, European allies attached importance to NATO remaining a Europe-oriented collective defense organization. The European members of the alliance did not want to see NATO act as a legitimizing platform for unilateral American military involvements across the globe or put them in unwanted contingencies driven by American-only security priorities.
That said, it is worth underlying that following their first institutional meeting with President Trump, European allies acquiesced to American demands that NATO institutionally take part in the U.S.-led coalition against Daesh and that Europeans intensify their cooperation with the United States in the fields of intelligence and counter-terrorism. Despite the lack of a clear-cut consensus on the policies to be adopted toward Russia, this move on the part of Europeans will likely alleviate the American concern that Europeans contribute more to the fight against terrorism and help ease the burden on the U.S.’ shoulders.
However, Trump’s visit to Brussels, coming on the heels of his visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican, should be considered in the context of the U.S.’ evolving attitude toward transatlantic relations. Some observations are offered below.
First, despite the American pivot to East Asia and previous U.S. President Barack Obama’s taking pride in becoming the first American president of the “post-American world,” the U.S. commitment to European security, NATO’s multilateral mechanisms, and the liberal world order had long been constants in American foreign policy by the time Trump occupied the White House.
Despite his volte-face on the usefulness of NATO, Trump has been saying for some time that NATO is obsolete. His predisposition to engage in great-powers diplomacy, transactional bilateral deals, and hard-power diplomacy puts him at odds with the multilateral and collective security underpinnings of the transatlantic alliance.
With Trump now in power, doubts about the survival of the liberal world order and NATO acting as its main pillar will likely increase. The major permissive factor behind the persistence of NATO has so far been the continuation of the U.S.-led liberal world order in which Western powers could brilliantly succeed in shaping the tone of global politics. This can no longer be taken for granted with Trump now adopting illiberal practices in the domestic and foreign policy realms. Trump does not believe that there is a Western international community built on common identity, morality and values.
Second, Trump voiced extremely critical views about the European allies during his election campaign. His vitriolic statements about the meager defense spending of European allies did not strike a sympathetic chord with Europeans. Despite the counter-arguments that Europeans have been substantially contributing to the transatlantic security by other means -- e.g. doling out development aid, setting the global standards on international trade, human rights, and environment policy -- Trump seems to have fixated on the idea that each NATO member spend at least 2 percent of its GDP on the military in line with the decisions adopted at NATO’s July 2016 Warsaw summit. From Trump’s perspective, the United States is a truly global power and it needs to allocate its scarce resources to different quarters of the globe, while Europeans take charge of security responsibilities in Europe and its peripheries. Trump seems to be extremely preoccupied with the issue of burden-sharing within NATO in numerical terms.
Third, since he came to the fore as the frontrunner of the Republican Party in the U.S. presidential elections, Trump has demonstrated a proclivity to mend fences with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. However, Trump’s pro-Putin stance seems to have caused strong consternation on the part of NATO’s European allies, particularly those bordering Russia. Many European members of NATO continue to view Russia as a growing threat to be reckoned with and support the continuation of the sanctions until hopefully producing a positive change in Russia’s behaviors.
The fact that Russia occupied Crimea, supported pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine, bolstered the Assad regime in Syria, put the postwar era’s liberal security order in Europe in jeopardy, and tried to affect the outcomes of many elections across the transatlantic community in cyberspace do not seem to bother Trump much, while European members of the alliance have demonstrated a greater willingness than ever to face up to the Russian challenge and bolster NATO’s defense and deterrence capabilities in the face of emerging security threats in the peripheries of their continent.
The continuation of NATO as the linchpin of Europe’s security structure has not only produced an environment conducive to the deepening of the EU integration process but also allayed the concern that the rise of Germany might produce a new hegemonic order in the middle of Europe.
With Trump now questioning the legitimacy of the liberal order and shaking up the foundations of NATO, the EU integration process might not survive the challenges of a potential German hegemony as well as a resurgent Russia. Trump seems to ignore the structural benefits of NATO’s persistence for the U.S. The re-emergence of balance of power politics in Europe in the absence of American commitment to European security through NATO might incur far greater costs in the future than the amount of money that the U.S. currently spends in NATO.
Fourth, Trump supported Brexit and showed his sympathy for populist, anti-globalist, and anti-integrationist candidates during the presidential and parliamentary elections recently held in some European countries, most notably France. While German Prime Minister Merkel warned Trump against the negative consequences of endangering the liberal democratic values of the transatlantic community, the head of the European Council, Donald Tusk, openly referred to Trump’s America as a potential threat leveled against the existing European security and political order.
It is no secret that Trump is not on the same page as new French President Macron and Merkel on such issues as globalization, multiculturalism, openness, migration, and climate change. The tendency on the part of Merkel and Macron to boost the EU integration process and endow the EU with its own defense capabilities might further deepen the transatlantic rift in the face of Brexit and Trump’s “America first” mentality.