Trump’s ambivalence brings NATO to a momentous turning point
NATO, America’s 29-nation military alliance, reached a turning point on the day that distinguished legal experts at congressional hearings hammered nails into President Donald Trump’s impeachment process.
Trump left the London summit of NATO leaders early to underscore annoyance because some allies like Emmanuel Macron of France and Justin Trudeau of Canada were caught on camera poking fun at him.
The smirks of allies galled Trump, coming alongside House Leader Nancy Pelosi’s spectacular moves to forcefully remind him that he is not a king. The takeaway for his NATO colleagues was that the bitterness of American politics is turning the US into an unreliable protector.
The powerful and mostly unquestioned US grip on its most valuable military allies is in its final throes because of Trump’s convictions and congressional politics. The key European powers are concluding that they should reduce their dependence on Washington and the Pentagon.
NATO is the longest-lived and most successful military alliance ever between the United States and its European friends. It reached an unexpected defining moment at the summit called to celebrate its 70th anniversary.
A noteworthy turning point hinges on whether NATO is still fit for purpose in this century without extending its reach “out of area” to China.
Created in 1949, its purpose was to deter the former Soviet Union through an “all for one and one for all” pledge of collective security inside Europe. Currently, Beijing is deemed to be the major military rival to the US placed just after Russia.
NATO has stood for so long because the US has a military budget of nearly $740 billion, far bigger than any other alliance member. With such enormous clout, even nuclear Britain and France are very much junior partners and all must buy American weapons to ensure interoperability with US forces.
In effect, the NATO allies are like an extended US military establishment. But this era is sliding to an end because neither Trump nor congressional leaders seem to understand what allies mean for the Pentagon’s war-fighting capabilities.
Trump’s speedy return to Washington did not slow down House Democrats from framing two articles on December 10 to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
House speaker Nancy Pelosi voiced alarm at “very serious violations of our constitution, undermining the national security of the United States, jeopardizing the integrity of our elections.”
It isn’t about the elections but about the Constitution and Congress’ role in checks and balances, she said.
This fight between congressional powers and presidential powers comes during very fraught times that affect America’s role in the world and the loyalty of allies.
Whatever happens to Trump in the US, he has already set the ball rolling on changes in NATO that will substantially weaken American influence over its European allies.
The world has never seen a military alliance as powerful as NATO. It has been astonishingly effective compared with most past alliances that lasted barely 15 years and were wracked by sharp distrust among allies.
Now NATO is being gnawed on the inside as by termites because of skepticism about America’s reliability as the collective’s protector.
There is also confusion about which are the enemies that must be deterred and whether the deterrence should only be military or extend to rivalries in the economic, high technology and cyber fields.
Another key question is whether NATO members should place weapons in space while preventing China, Russia and India from doing so.
These are critical strategic questions about NATO’s utility and viability in coming years. They are undermined by Trump’s nonchalance about international treaties because he believes allies are taking more than they are putting back into the US in value terms.
There are many reasons for apprehension since NATO is currently in a mess because of almost non-existent internal cohesion on policies and continual squabbles among its 29 disparate members.
A breakdown of internal cohesion within NATO is dangerous for global peace and security because Russia, China and other smaller powers may no longer hesitate to occupy neighboring territories or start wars for small gains.
Currently, NATO members stand like guarantors of non-war because they channel American military power coordinated using NATO structures to trouble spots. It is being deployed to deter Beijing in the South China Sea, Iran in the Persian Gulf and the Islamic State in Africa’s Sahel and Sub-Sahara regions.
The current mess in NATO has arisen because its foundations are being doubted, as was evident at the London summit. During his election campaign in 2016, Trump called NATO “obsolete” and disrupted every top-level alliance meeting with demands for much more defense spending by the allies.
Since 2016, the defense spending of allies has risen by $130 billion but Trump remains dissatisfied although he no longer calls the alliance obsolete. NATO members have an informal target of 2% of GDP for spending on defense but very few meet it. The US spends over 3%, the UK and eight others hover at or just below 2%, while the majority are at the low 1% level.
Trump’s ambivalence has convinced Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that US support for NATO’s central pledge of “all for one and one for all” can no longer be relied upon blindly. That pledge contained in Article 5 is considered shaky because West Europeans think that the US may not come to their aid automatically even if Trump were no longer President.
Macron has added to doubts about Article 5 by calling NATO “brain dead” because it has no strategy to better integrate European allies in important US military decisions, such as withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan.
He also upset fellow ally Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey who urged Macron to “have your own brain death checked out first” after the Frenchman criticized Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria, permitted by Trump, to fight Kurds allied to the US but seen as terrorists by Ankara.
Many Europeans still regard nearby Russia as the potential enemy especially since it annexed Crimea and dismembered Ukraine, which is a West-leaning state that would like to become a NATO member.
But Washington is convinced that China is the new potential enemy and wants to contain its military, economic and cyber power. That is pushing other NATO members to acquiesce to a new strategic thought process that could extend NATO’s covert operations in apparently non-military fields like the economy and telecommunications.
NATO would also go beyond European borders to face down potential security challenges to alliance members and their friends from China’s rising economic power in Eurasia and Asia.
Any imprudence in thinking about these kinds of directions for NATO when its internal cohesion is weak could destabilize the current great power peace and global security.