NATO: Trump and supporters head for sharp disillusion
NATO and Britain’s reactions to President Donald Trump’s visits signal that his relentless self-destructive steps are setting him and his core supporters up for the sharpest disillusionment of their political lives.
He and his supporters seem convinced that American military, economic and diplomatic powers are so overwhelming that Europeans have little choice but to acquiesce to whatever he demands – and there will be no consequences for whatever he says.
They are heading for major disappointments. For 18 months into Trump’s presidency, Europeans and others have waited quietly without too many protests to assess his political strength in the US.
After the NATO summit, where Trump was disruptive and ill-manner diplomatically, they are waiting for the November mid-term polls to see how Republicans fare.
If Trump becomes stronger because of Republican successes, the major European powers will acknowledge that Trump’s bullying attitudes towards NATO and trade with Europe will continue to drive US policy.
So, they will start to protect their own backs and huddle often to plan how each major ally can reduce dependence on the US, and how Europe can step away collectively from America’s orbit.
That stepping away will happen by putting less heart into friendship with America. They too will move towards becoming more transactional with Washington.
This is not a prospect to be welcomed. NATO may be outdated in some respects but upheavals in transatlantic military cohesion are not good for European and global security even though some may rejoice in Moscow or Beijing.
The NATO Summit in Brussels showed that even America’s closest allies, the ones that depend heavily on US military power for their protection, are starting to step away from the US because trust has been frayed severely enough for them to start building self-reliance.
Even Britain’s Theresa May, who has desperately tried to shore up the historic “special relationship” with America, found today that Trump is fundamentally disrespectful of her country’s great political traditions and history.
He seems to see her as a supplicant for trade agreements and a novice who should take advice from him in the final stages of the most fateful political battle in recent British history over Brexit, Britain’s exit from the European Union, due in March 2019.
He flatly suggested that her chief political rival would be a better British Prime Minister than her, which is a blatant interference in the politics of the world’s most respected and robust democracy.
Europeans, including Britain, are realizing that Trump’s aggressive rhetoric can no longer be treated as the rants of a political amateur. They are being forced to recognize that American foreign, trade and defense policies are already dramatically different and disdainful of long-standing relationships with allies. And these American trends may strengthen instead of petering out.
Building Europe’s self-reliance may take a decade or more but once the ball gets rolling, Europeans will be much less respectful of the White House despite America’s power being unmatched in military, economic and most other spheres.
NATO’s European members will not be able to continue their hardline attitudes against Russia to punish it for usurping Crimea and destabilizing east Ukraine, if the White House does not have their backs.
They will have to make compromises with Russia and try to bring it closer to the European fold by offering more trade and finance openings and toning down rhetoric about military rivalry.
In effect, Washington, including the US Congress, will find it much harder to use Europeans as tools of its foreign and military policies towards Russia, China and the Middle East. It will no longer have ready followers and friends in Europe of its global leadership as in the past.
Trump injected great doubt about American support by insisting that all European NATO members should invest at least 2 percent of GDP into defense capabilities compatible with American-made weapons systems and war-fighting methods that dominate NATO.
He wants that to happen within months and not by 2024 as agreed earlier. He also seems to want major countries like Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain to spend 4 percent.
If the Europeans do that, the bonanza for American weapons manufacturers will be unprecedently huge for years to come and new arms races will start with Russia and China, making the world much less safe and stable for everyone.
That Europeans are cooling towards American leadership, which they supported and followed for decades, was evident from the wording of the NATO Summit’s final statement.
European allies pledged their “unwavering commitment” to boost defense spending and declared that they are “committed to improving the balance of sharing the costs and responsibilities of alliance membership.”
The pledges did not go a step beyond similar promises made previously and never kept by the major European powers. Just five countries meet the 2 percent standard and 15 may get there by 2024 on current trends.
Trump’s harsh words changed nothing at the Summit, although he claimed “total victory” and a “huge success”, saying other NATO members had committed to increase their military spending “like they never have before.”
French President Emmanuel Macron later refuted any such commitments. Germany’s Angela Merkel kept a low profile but her disdain for Trump is undisguised and she is pushing European powers to reduce their dependence on US protection.
In a private meeting, Trump was reported to have said that the US would “go it alone” if the Europeans did not quickly honor the defense spending targets. This was the last straw for Merkel and even May was reported to have said privately that Trump went too far in his pressure tactics.
NATO may seem distant to many but it is at the core of global security and regional military balances because its current members enjoy a GDP of nearly $40 trillion and annual defense expenditures of about $1 trillion, including $680 billion in US defense spending. They dwarf the $17 trillion joint GDP of China, Russia and India and about $350 billion in defense budgets.
Core disagreements, loss of trust and fragmentation within NATO could open a Pandora’s box of security issues on a continent that caused and suffered history’s most catastrophic fratricidal wars in the 20th century.