There has been little to cheer about in the corridors of SHAPE, NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, for the past few years. The threat from the Islamic State, a resurgent Russia and stagnating defence budgets have given the alliance much to confront, with an increasingly strained stockpile of resources. The collective sense of dread has only grown stronger since the election of Donald Trump as US President, a man with a well-known scepticism of multilateral institutions and nationalistic sense of American hegemonic superiority. Trump has previously called NATO ‘obsolete,’ sparking considerable controversy. Subsequent visits to Europe by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defence James Mattis have been seen as urgent attempts to repair the damage done by such remarks. However, reassurance from Pence that the US has a ‘strong commitment’ to NATO and that it was ‘the best alliance in the world’ according to Mattis have done little to quell European fears. Ignoring the air of disarray born from such opposing statements, Trump’s suggestion that protection could be withdrawn from states that do not ‘pay their fair share’ left a deep bruise on European leaders.
What is also remarkable is Trump’s monetisation of US defence commitments. NATO and the concept of collective defence enshrined in Article 5 of its charter has been the pinnacle of western unity and security since WWII. Threatening this alliance for the sake of financial savings is reckless. This is especially true considering the president’s most recent budget proposal, in which he seeks to increase defence spending by 9 per cent. Publicly shaming the members of America’s most important defence partnership is a danger to the alliance and to the pillars of the international system that the US and Europe have collectively built over the last 70 years.
Yet, regrettably, Trump does have a point. The commitment to defence spending by European members of the alliance has been lacklustre, largely since the end of the Cold War. The fact that major economies such as Germany and Italy do not reach the two per cent target undermines the credibility of the threshold, and Europe’s commitment to its defence. The fact that Belgium and Luxembourg do not even reach one per cent is an embarrassment. Such an attitude to defence is a blatant attempt at free riding on the taxpayers of other member states. Why should the Danes or the Spanish pass the bill to Estonia or Britain, or across the Atlantic to the US? In a healthy partnership, all states must participate equally, or at least to the best of their ability.
For a populist with a huge lack of any substantial policies such as Trump, it is easy to win support for such a move. Why should US citizens pay for the defence of European countries, many of whom are rich and have not fully supported the war on terror by backing the 2003 invasion of Iraq? This would be an easy line to sell even without the mood of hostility to all things foreign.
It is wholly understandable that defence spending declined in 1991 with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Attempts by states to cash in on a peace dividend in a less divided and more secure world were only logical. But it is no longer 1991. The military threat to Europe is higher in 2017 than it has been since the fall of the USSR. Only three years ago, Russian-manufactured missiles shot down a Dutch civilian airliner in European airspace. Russian President Vladimir Putin also blatantly invaded Ukraine, trampling on its sovereignty, despite protests that Russian troops were not involved. Ultimately, Russia annexed a portion of Ukrainian territory—Crimea—on the auspice of a referendum held at the barrel of a gun. This land grab of sovereign territory is unacceptable. Though Ukraine is not a NATO member state and is not party to collective security mechanisms, Russian activity this close to NATO borders is alarming. To prevent further Russian incursions into European territory and to live up to its ultimate purpose, NATO should remain vocal in its opposition to such activities, in addition to shoring up its eastern flank with additional troops.
To be sure, this is not the first time the utility of NATO has been questioned. The alliance was formed in 1946 to counter Soviet aggression at the start of the Cold War, its activities maintained throughout that period with constant competition with Warsaw Pact states. NATO thus had a strong sense of purpose and relevance to Cold War life for western citizens; its nuclear umbrella was the guarantor of their safety and security. In 1991 this purpose disintegrated, the west had triumphed over communism and the Warsaw Pact was dissolved. This would have been a good point for soul searching, had the alliance not subsequently been called upon to coordinate an air campaign in Kosovo. Subsequent ‘out of area’ operations in Afghanistan and Libya have kept the alliance’s chiefs at least partially busy. Despite this, the underlying ripples of uncertainty have also persisted in NATO: indeed, without a singe serious enemy aggressor, what is the purpose of the pact?
Such thinking, whilst logical and legitimate, should be cast asunder. Though NATO was indeed created to counter the now defunct Soviet Union, the alliance now symbolises much more than this. It has a resolute purpose today, and will continue to be relevant in the future. To this day, NATO is a safety net for millions in the Baltics who fear Russian incursions. These people want to live in free and democratic societies, something which is only certain as part of the western bloc. NATO also has much to offer to the world, through involvement in initiatives such as UN peacekeeping operations and policing the Gulf of Aden. It is the most powerful military alliance on the planet, and it should be used for the greater good.
Safeguarding the alliance should be a priority for European leaders, especially given the UK’s vote to leave the EU. The departure of the continent’s largest military power is hardly reassuring for the Union, even more so given the recent rhetoric of Theresa May, which suggested that the UK would use its much respected defence and intelligence architecture as a bargaining chip in upcoming divorce negotiations. Integrating European defence will save money and strengthen the continent’s military infrastructure, moves now possible due to the removal of longstanding British opposition. The isolationist tones of the new US administration—drifting away from free trade and international agreements—must also enter into these calculations. It is entirely possible that Europe will need to step up its global role to fill the absence of the UK and US.
Although a focus on militarism, increasing defence budgets, and the production of yet more deadly weapons is undesirable to global peace and security, this is the reality of 21st century geopolitics. The west’s influence is in perpetual relative decline, a trend cannot be halted. But maintenance of the institutions that have aided global stability for more than half a century must be ensured. If the west needs to beef up hard power capability to do this, then so be it. The world of 2017 is one in which the Russian bear is waking from hibernation, the Chinese dragon spits fire at its neighbours and the Indian elephant is increasingly realising its own critical mass. American hawks and European doves alike should be prepared to police these other beasts from the skies and defend the interests of their citizens and their values. These steps do not represent a move towards aggression, but a consolidation of the western position and safeguarding of global progressivism.
To be clear, President Trump’s ideology and beliefs are a shame. However, he is now the world’s most powerful head of state. However distasteful Europeans may find him, and however offensive people find his stance towards Muslims and refugees, they must learn to work with him. Trump will be in the office for the next four years perhaps eight if the tide of populism proves it is here to stay. Boosting defence spending to levels that are required to ensure Europe’s physical security and to targets willingly agreed upon by member states is a start towards making this partnership work. Europeans must face this reality head on and prepare for a more turbulent future. If the spirit of the transatlantic alliance dies, so does NATO. Were this to happen, the west would soon follow.