The Atlantic alliance may be broken beyond repair

Donald Trump’s obsession with Europe paying its ‘fair share’ for Nato has undermined the common values that have upheld the organisation

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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.

It is not clear what, if any, specific goals Trump thought he might achieve during his trip. Disengagement from the international community, and more specifically adding an element of uncertainty to America’s foundational military alliance, have had global repercussions. That uncertainty about the reliabil-ity of US support is one of the factors behind South Korea’s decision to stop deployment of the US THAAD missile defence system, in deference to the rising regional power of China. Equally, Trump’s rhetoric seems to have galvanised the most powerful European leaders, who in turn have capitalised on long-standing anti-Americanism.

Trump left Europe having exacerbated the multitude of security crises facing the Continent. In deference to the President, the Nato meeting shelved the pressing issue of the threat from Russia or the strategic challenge presented by Nato’s rogue member, Turkey. Instead the focus was a meaningless commitment by the Nato Secretary-General to tackle terrorism collectively. This was merely a reassertion of something all the member states already do, on a more appropriate individual basis. In any case, it is far from clear that the solution to the threat of terrorism is primarily one of military engagement. We tend to forget that the post-war period was marked by successive terrorist threats throughout Europe: Baader-Meinhof, the Red Brigades, Black September, the IRA, Eta. None of these were defeated militarily, but by penetration. Rather than a show of newfound purpose, the Nato meeting illustrated the degree to which the alliance has been diverted from conventional military deterrence by a desire to keep Trump and the US engaged with Atlanticism.

The meeting’s ambiguous ending created a dangerous security vacuum, with neither fellow Nato members nor potential aggressors knowing how Trump would choose to interpret US commitments if Article 5 were to be invoked. Trump waited a further two weeks before finally committing to Article 5, bizarrely choosing to do so in answer to a Romanian journalist rather than to Nato’s collective leadership. It seems unlikely that his sudden volte-face will have reassured any of his European counterparts, accompanied as it was by a repetition of his insistence that European allies “owe” payment for years in which they missed the 2 per cent spending target.

Trump’s ambiguity matters, but not because it invalidates Article 5. The Article 5 commitment was ratified by the Senate as part of the Washington Treaty that formed Nato in 1949 and is, in essence, a contractual obligation. Nato is not purely defined by Article 5 and if Trump truly wanted to end US membership of Nato he could invoke the lesser-known Article 13 and withdraw a year later. What his speech actually clarified is that US commitment to collective security is now conditional on European defence spending. Nato’s Article 3 has always predicated mutual protection on mutual contribution to defence. Ever since the Kennedy administration burden-sharing has been a source of conflict between the US and Europe. Trump has hardened that stance to the extent that it casts doubt on his understanding of US commitments to mutual deterrence.

The suggestion that Germany and other allies owe dues to the alliance, or to the United States, reflected Trump’s lack of understanding of how Nato works, or what the alliance stands for. Allies do not contribute to the alliance by paying dues, other than providing their share of funds to support “common” programmes like Nato infrastructure. The main “contribution” made by each ally is the money spent on their own defence efforts. There is no question that many allies have not spent as much as the United States would have liked on defence since the end of the Cold War, or even throughout the history of the alliance. But the notion of allies owing “past dues” is completely inconsistent with the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty or with practice institutionalised over nearly 70 years.

A transactional understanding of Nato shows not just an ignorance of the organisation’s historic purpose; it also undermines Nato’s role in preserving a US vital interest, which is the maintenance of the balance of power among the European states. As recently as 1992, leaked Pentagon papers perceived the importance of preventing the emergence of a rival hegemon as a central strategic interest. With hindsight such a challenge from the EU itself appears laughable. More plausible is the rise of Franco-German power within Europe. Because of the damage inflicted on the “special relationship” by the Trump administration’s numerous leaks and swingeing UK defence cuts, the Anglo-American partnership that inhibited Franco-German power is at a low point.

Unthinkably, members of the Five Eyes intelligence community, a cornerstone of post-war security, are now loath to share everything with their US counterparts.

Indeed, Trump’s attitude towards Nato cannot be separated from his entanglement with Russia and Putin, both of which he has conspicuously avoided criticising. The ongoing investigations and revelations of back-channel dealings with Russia, not to mention Russian attempts to influence the result of the US election, all cast doubt over Trump’s motivation for shifting US and Nato strategic priorities. It is hard to see how Nato allies can trust a President who appears so fundamentally compromised on the most serious threat to many alliance members and to Western values. As European Council President Donald Tusk revealed during Trump’s European trip, serious divisions between Trump and Europe remain over major issues, above all Russia. In mid-June Secretary of Defence James Mattis, previously seen as a moderating voice of reason, reversed his initial congressional testimony. During his confirmation hearings in January he had identified Russia as the biggest threat to the US. Five months later, despite minimal material change, he suggested the biggest threat was now North Korea. It is unclear why the administration remains silent about their actual concern, that Russia is increasing trade with North Korea. Moscow has become the top supplier of jet fuel to the “Hermit Kingdom”, after Trump applied pressure to China to scale back its support.

We may never find out exactly why Mattis changed his mind so suddenly, but Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate have made explicit provision that a new round of legislation extending sanctions on Russia cannot be reversed by the White House without Congressional approval.

Although Congress is concerned enough to make these provisions, Nato is curiously muted. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently said that the alliance saw “no imminent danger” of a conventional military assault on the most vulnerable Baltic states. These are exactly the countries that Trump suggested during the presidential campaign in 2016 that he might not defend.

He went on to indicate a degree of tolerance for Russian land grabs with the suggestion that he might, as President, recognise Crimea as Russian territory. That recognition has not materialised. Nevertheless, the weakening of Article 5 and the acquiescence in Russian revanchism are a dangerous combination. The evolution of Russian strategy in Georgia and then Ukraine has been notable because it has been designed, in the words of Richard Shirreff (retired deputy supreme allied commander Europe) to “undermine the integrity of your target state below the threshold at which Nato’s Article 5 might be called”.

If Russia created such a scenario, in which the ostensible motivation was to protect Russian-speaking minorities, and did so by harnessing domestic dissent, massing conventional forces on the border, cyber-warfare and propaganda, it is not clear what Trump’s response might be. In any event, although Nato has been war-gaming such scenarios for some time, the result of Rand Corporation studies suggest that it still has not mobilised enough resources to defend the Baltic states for more than three days.

Russia is not the only threat to Nato. The other pressing issue is how to engage with Turkey, which for so long was an ally that proved that a Muslim-majority country could be both secular and democratic. Now the gulf between Turkey and the rest of the alliance is so great that some analysts suggest that her complicated relationship with IS extends to defiant support. Certainly, Turkey’s recent support for Qatar puts her at odds with the US. Even putting aside the normative deficit after President Erdogan’s authoritarian turn, Turkey is engaged in an escalating conflict with the Kurds and in a relationship with Russia that represents a Catch-22 for Nato as it veers between near-conflict and rapprochement. Ankara has repeatedly shown that it is prepared to blackmail the alliance, vetoing Israel’s participation in exercises in 2010, attempting to block joint exercises with Austria, and now stopping German parliamentarians from visiting their troops stationed at Incirlik Air Base. The last two actions represent a direct response to Austria and Germany refusing to permit diasporic rallies in advance of Turkey’s recent referendum. Unsurprisingly, there is some talk of blocking Turkey from hosting the 2018 Nato summit. Certainly, all of these are challenges to the coherence of Article 5. Trump’s unmitigated support for Erdogan might well embolden Ankara to push the Nato relationship to the point of dislocation.

The common theme in all of these challenges is that the political fragility of Nato seems to have been forgotten. As American foreign policy becomes increasingly incoherent, Germany and France are being thrust together. Both Chancellor Merkel and President Macron are instinctively (and unusually for both countries) Atlanticist. However, Trump’s European rampage gave them a politically irresistible chance to exploit domestic anti-Americanism. Angela Merkel has deftly undermined the Social Democrat challenge she faced. In a masterful move she has been able to criticise an unpopular US President while still extolling the importance of the Western alliance, negating any critique from Germany’s Left.

Macron is another beneficiary of Trump’s hubris. Merkel cannot allow the EU to rupture over Franco-German differences and she can use the threat of international instability to sell concessions to France to the Germans. The EU’s loss of Britain, coupled with American unreliability and the threat from Russia, will push both France and Germany to reach agreement on eurozone reform. For his part, Macron seems to be engaged in a Gaullist revival. It was De Gaulle’s angry exit from Nato, caused by what he saw as Anglo-American dominance, that meant that France was not a full member of the alliance between 1966 and 2009. Macron’s high-profile defiance of Trump has served him equally well. Unilateral German power may well still be unpalatable, not least to the Germans. But a strong Franco-German alliance is a far more comfortable proposition for both countries. It is unclear whether that would be in the form of the EU, the euro area or a simple Franco-German alliance.

The UK has traditionally assumed the role of moderating such Continental ambition and keeping European military engagement under Nato’s auspices. After Brexit the UK’s ability to do so is waning and Germany is starting to make parallel defence arrangements. Although the Ministry of Defence vigorously denies it, the UK is almost certainly guilty of also missing the 2 per cent Nato spending target. Coupled with spiralling costs on the largest defence procurement projects, the MoD appears to be back to the perilous position it occupied in 2010. The most high-profile consequence so far has been a symbolic cut in the Royal Marines, in order to deal with a manpower crisis in the Navy. This means that there are currently not enough sailors to staff the second of the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. Notably, the government also dropped any manifesto pledge to keep a minimum of 82,000 army personnel. The general staff have been forced to consider a number of options, including a reduction in troop numbers to less than two-thirds the size of the French army. There are even plans to prepare for numbers being slashed to 60,000 or 70,000. To add to the crisis, recent policing cuts mean that the army is further stretched by having to plug the gaps in police capability in dealing with terrorism.

The effect is likely to be that Britain can no longer be assured of her prominent position within Nato. For example, Sir Stuart Peach, the Chief of the Defence Staff, is lobbying for a job in Nato despite having been in his current post for only a year. One should not be surprised if he wishes to avoid ending his career presiding over the gutting of the British armed forces.Yet the position he is likely to receive is a relatively junior role for a man of his rank. One might have expected him to be appointed Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the second most powerful military role in Nato, a position held by a British officer since 1951. However both the French and German forces have been lobbying for the role in light of their relative importance to the alliance. It speaks volumes for Britain’s declining influence.

While the mention of an EU army is still politically unpalatable, steps are nevertheless being taken towards exactly that end. In an implicit challenge to Britain’s military dominance among the Europeans, Germany and France are working out specific proposals for an EU defence fund, ahead of their bilateral meeting in July. In the words of the German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, echoing Mrs Merkel, “The Brexit referendum and the US election opened our eyes. Europeans must take more responsibility for our own security.”

Already both Romania and the Czech Republic have announced the integration of one brigade into the Bundeswehr’s Rapid Response Forces Division. This follows three Dutch brigades which have also joined the Bundeswehr. The Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, has previously warned the EU against undermining Nato. Nonetheless, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, took the unusual step of explicitly saying that the UK is “not going to stand in their way” as EU member states make moves to enhance collaboration on defence, including a possible operational headquarters in Brussels.

Trump’s angry denunciations ignore the reality that Europeans are taking more responsibility for their own security but in ways which are ultimately incompatible with long-term American strategy. Nato’s European members are fragmenting into smaller multinational forces such as the Nordic Battle Group and Britain’s Joint Expeditionary Force. Of course, all these regional forces currently see themselves as part of Nato. That may well change as Nato and the EU face further political fragmentation.

Trump’s Nato speech was a reversal of Dean Acheson’s original suggestion that Nato meant Europe would be joining America, not vice versa, as the Monroe Doctrine was widened to embrace the eastern shores of the Atlantic. Such ideas are not part of Trump’s world view and, unlike his predecessors,  he is no student of history. If he were, he might grasp why the economic imbalance inherent in Nato has always been a necessary price for preserving America’s vital interests. The jarring sight of a number of European leaders stifling laughter as they were publicly chastised by Trump highlighted that the shared Atlanticist values which originally bound the alliance are becoming less cohesive by the day.

Trump may well have reversed his suggestion of Nato obsolescence, but for him that simply means the alliance now appears to support his personal strategic agenda. He has created enough ambiguity that the principle of collective security is no longer perceived as an inviolable guarantee. For now, Nato still represents enough of a draw that Macedonia is considering a name change in order to counter Greek opposition to its membership. But while Nato may not be dead, the Atlantic community has fractured, perhaps irreversibly.