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President Trump and Theresa May at the inauguration of Nato’s new headquarters in May: Doubts rise about US commitment (©MELANIE WENGER/AFP/Getty Images)


Despite Montenegro’s accession to membership, 2017 has been a disastrous year for Nato. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, a US president has created a division in values between Europe and America. Putting to one side the equivocation over Nato’s Article 5, which sets out the principle of collective security, Donald Trump’s suggestion that the European allies “owe” America for their protection undermines the international order that America itself created. A transactional approach is not the basis of an alliance and undermines the principle of normative indivisibility upon which Nato is based. The alliance was always about the defence of specific values, enshrined in institutional practice.

As the James Comey Senate hearing revealed, the values to which Trump gives precedence are to do with personal loyalty, not universal freedom. The same logic is evident in Trump’s personal approach to alliances. The values of the executive office and the constitution are for the President always subordinate to personal loyalty and rule by fiat. By transposing these personal rules of conduct to the world stage, Trump has dragged American politics away from its role as the defender of the universal values of liberal democracy. In so doing, he has handed Putin, Erdogan and the alternative, illiberal version of democracy a tremendous victory.

The UK is seemingly powerless to act as Athens to America’s Rome, a role to which we once aspired. Theresa May’s electoral miscalculation has handed considerable power to continental Europe and not only in the Brexit negotiations. The underwhelming election campaign and equally disappointing result underlines Britain’s rapidly-diminishing soft power within European politics and equally parlous defence position. This has been manifested in terms of our military capability but also a lack of engagement with the widening transatlantic dispute over future European security.

Mrs May paid a heavy price in part for the assumption that forging closer links with Trump would pay off electorally. The same loose thinking is in danger of undermining the UK’s defence position. Despite Trump finally making a public affirmation of the US commitment to Article 5, the European members of Nato are starting to do the unthinkable and slowly move towards forming a more integrated European defence force. As I predicted in Standpoint just before the Brexit vote, the issue of how we leave the EU has prevented the UK from fully engaging in this debate. Now serious budgeting and manpower issues in the armed forces also jeopardise the UK’s historic leadership role within Nato. The combination of the two is potentially fatal.

The Nato meeting in May was the moment that many hoped President Trump would reiterate his commitment to Article 5. Rather than sticking to his prewritten speech in which he said exactly this, and remaining true to his personal principle of unpredictability, the President refused to give any such commitment. Instead, he spoke mainly of the unequal burden-sharing within the alliance. Accounts of the dinner that followed Trump’s speech suggest that he continued in his hectoring of the US’s European allies to “pay some or all of that money back” from previous years. Following swiftly from these comments was the sudden, if less unexpected, US departure from the Paris climate agreement.

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