Trump Is Heading to Europe for an Ideological Battle

Robin Niblett talks to Jason Naselli about the key fault lines between the US president and his allies, as President Trump heads to the NATO summit, a visit to the United Kingdom and a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Expert comment Updated 13 December 2018 Published 9 July 2018 5 minute READ

Jason Naselli

Former Senior Digital Editor

Donald Trump stands in front of the Warsaw Uprising Monument on Krasinski Square on 6 July 2017 in Warsaw, before delivering a speech where he argued that the future of Western civilization is at stake. Photo: Getty Images.

Donald Trump stands in front of the Warsaw Uprising Monument on Krasinski Square on 6 July 2017 in Warsaw, before delivering a speech where he argued that the future of Western civilization is at stake. Photo: Getty Images.

Is NATO fit for purpose? This question has been around since the end of the Cold War, but with continuing disagreement over defence spending and burden-sharing, the alliance is appearing increasingly dysfunctional. What is the path forward?

The irony is that NATO is increasingly fit for purpose as a military alliance. But the political alliance it is meant to represent is being called ever more into question.

If you look at what’s been happening since the NATO summit in Wales in 2014, it has been a march upwards – rising numbers of NATO members spending more than 2% of GDP on defence, rising numbers spending 20% of their defence budgets on acquisitions and R&D, and defence spending rising across the board in Europe.

Two new NATO commands are being created, one to improve mobility and logistics across Europe, and one to improve naval coordination in the Atlantic. Add to this an increasingly credible NATO Rapid Reaction Force, troops being rotated through the Baltic states and the fact that, even under the Trump administration, the US is spending 40% more now on its European Reassurance Initiative than it was at the end of the Obama administration.

So you look at all of this, and you have to say that NATO is stepping up from a military standpoint; it is following through on the commitments made at the Wales summit, responding to the appearance of a more severe threat from Russia and to the urgings of both the Obama and Trump presidencies.

On the other side of the ledger is the fact that President Trump has personally made criticism of Europe, and particularly the European Union, pivotal to his foreign policy. Europe is the poster child for his thesis that America has been taken advantage of for the past 30 years, that it has been shelling out money for its allies’ security while they have been freeriding on America’s generosity. In Trump’s eyes, the fact that countries like Germany are running a trade surplus in goods with America means they are taking advantage of America and NATO is therefore worthless.

But there is also the fact that, specifically on defence spending, some NATO members are not doing enough to move towards the commitment of spending 2% of GDP on defence.

I think there are two problems with the debate over the 2% target.

The first is when Americans contrast this with the 3.6% of GDP they spend on defence and the fact that the US defence budget is bigger than the rest of NATO’s combined. It is fair to ask: how much of this is going towards NATO and the defence of Europe and how much towards projecting US power all over the world? Yes, US defence spending helps NATO allies more broadly, for example protecting sea lanes in east Asia and the Gulf. But a lot of what America spends on defence is connected to US interests, diplomacy and power.

Europeans could also argue that America’s high spending on defence hasn’t exactly helped. The Iraq war has involved a huge cost in American blood and treasure, but Iraq is seen by many, including President Trump, as a huge mistake.

Do Europeans need to contribute more to their own deterrence and defence? Undoubtedly. On the other hand, spending on development assistance and security training in the Sahel is as important to European and transatlantic security as buying more sophisticated air defence systems.

In addition, President Trump’s criticisms of European defence spending go far deeper than the past critique by American secretaries of defense like Bob Gates and Jim Mattis. In President Trump’s view, Europe and the EU are emblematic of a post-modern, political aberration, denying the sovereignty of their peoples and undermining Judeo-Christian culture with political correctness and openness to immigration.

It is this deeper, visceral clash that risks undermining a NATO that is actually operating pretty well right now.

Part of what underpins the Atlantic alliance, though, is a commitment to a rule-based international order and a structure that has, to some extent, shared values. If the US is moving away from some of those shared values, where does that leave Europe?

We need to start by recognizing that there are an increasing number of European leaders, in government and opposition groups, who are quite supportive of President Trump’s outlook. The battle over social values on both sides of the Atlantic is a by-product of the battle over the domestic effects of globalization, and we may be at the beginning of this battle.

What is deeply worrying is that President Trump is extending this battle into international affairs. He revels in challenging the tenets of what is described as the ‘rules-based international order’, conflating it with ‘political correctness’. But, in fact, his outlook appears to be based on something else: the belief that ‘might makes right’ – that if you are more powerful, you have the right to use that power to achieve gains that accrue directly to yourself. To America first.

This is not the idea behind NATO. NATO is an alliance between 29 countries, of which the US is the biggest and most powerful. But America can only lead NATO by mutual consent. The challenge to NATO is that President Trump is now trying to use America’s preponderant military power to force European countries to cry uncle on their trade policy. It is not so much about Europe spending 2% on defence, but recognizing America’s preponderant power and its right to follow or flout the rules of the rules-based order as it sees fit.

So that leaves Europeans needing to address the legitimate US complaints by increasing defence spending, but then hanging together on the trade agenda and preventing the conflation that Trump wants to create between America’s military power and getting an economic payback. That’s not a mutual alliance of one for all and all for one; that’s a protection racket.

Europe has to resist this argument and then hope that either Trump chooses not to implement some of his more extreme threats – calling European car imports a national security threat, for example – or retaliate in a proportionate manner and hope the next president takes a less mercantilist line.

And in the interim, Europeans need to do more to build up their strategic autonomy, whether through EU or other pan-European defence cooperation.

Trump is visiting Britain as an American president who has had unprecedented public disagreements with a number of close allies, including the UK. What does a healthy future relationship with the US look like for Britain?

Britain is especially vulnerable to Trump’s mood swings as it exits the EU. He could easily try to apply America’s power directly vis-à-vis Britain as he has done against Japan. For all of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s personal outreach to the US president, Trump still slapped steel and aluminium tariffs on Japan and left it on the sidelines of his North Korean negotiations.

You can look at Britain as a counterpart to Japan. Like Japan, it has an awkward relationship with its neighbourhood, it is hugely dependent on the US for its security and it runs a trade surplus with the US – though a far more modest one. Unlike Japan, Britain has a much more vocal anti-Trump domestic environment. That’s a pretty vulnerable position to be in with a president who approaches the world the way Trump does.

What this means is that Britain needs to avoid antagonizing America unnecessarily. On the other hand, it also needs to recognize that the bulk of its security interests and global policies are far more in synch with its European allies than with President Trump. On climate change, on the Iran nuclear deal, on approaches to international trade, even on Russia – Britain is inextricably linked with its European neighbours.

Until Brexit is sorted out, the UK may not be able to recognize this reality and make it formally part of foreign policy. But Britain can’t afford to burn bridges with Europe any more than it can afford to burn bridges with Trump.

How much does the UK’s anti-Trump domestic environment make that balancing more difficult? And is this part of a pattern where some American presidents are simply more well-received than others, or is this a new and stronger reaction to Trump?

At a popular level, it feels simply like another wave. There was a deep anti-Reagan movement in the UK, honed for some by the deployment of cruise missiles in Britain and his ratcheting up of Cold War rhetoric. There was obviously a negative period with George W Bush and the Iraq War. I’m not convinced that the anti-Trump mood is more intense than those moments.

But what is different is that among the British foreign policy and defence community, there is a deep fear that President Trump represents something way beyond Bush or Reagan. In Reagan’s case, at least there was a Cold War that limited US unilateralism. And under George W Bush, there was no diminution of the US commitment to the Atlantic alliance or the rules-based trade system.

So where the UK–US split is emerging is not so much at the popular level. Rather, it is that America is increasingly not trusted by those who develop policy in the United Kingdom. And that is profound and new.

After Trump visits Britain, he will be meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Is there any value to these one-on-one formats he seems to be cultivating, or are they simply too superficial?

If we look at what he has done so far in these one-on-one meetings, they tend to be theatre more than action. But they do send signals and they can affect trust.

Alliances are based on trust. In the end, the Article V commitment to collective defence in the NATO treaty is ambiguously-worded, and is meaningful only to the extent that there is trust that everyone is in it together. If Trump uses the meeting with President Putin to imply that he trusts Putin as much as he does European leaders, that will erode further the foundations of the Atlantic alliance.

But President Trump needs to be very careful not to be too chummy with Putin, because his own party in Congress is deeply conflicted on its approach to Russia. Despite his comments about possibly recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, I don’t think he wants anything specific from President Putin right now; and the broader political deal he seems to want – to bring Russia in from the cold – is not acceptable to congressional Republicans.

President Putin for his part does not need to be too chummy with Trump either, because he can’t be sure Trump can deliver. After all, Trump has overseen a decay in the US relationship with Russia, not an improvement.

Putin’s best opportunities continue to lie in schism between his opponents. If he’s clever, he’ll try to use the meeting to draw Trump into a political dialogue – perhaps by offering some symbolic concession on Ukraine or Crimea – that will contribute to deepening the current schism between Europe and the US.