Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
Even after a typically stormy speech at NATO’s shiny new HQ, President Trump’s true feelings on the intergovernmental military alliance are still not known. They may never be known.
What we do know is that they are subject to immediate change, depending on circumstance and persuasiveness of whom he is meeting.
Trump’s big foreign policy trip gave the latest indication of the NATO flip-flop, amidst a sudden souring of relations with Germany, in an exchange of words from both leaders aimed well beyond their respective home nations.
The background context
Trump has consistently criticised NATO members for not paying the agreed to two per cent of GDP on defence, both as a candidate and as president. In that respect he has a point, though traditional rules of diplomacy suggest private lobbying of other world leaders might be more effective than public shellacking.
On the campaign trail NATO was redundant in Trump’s eyes, reflecting the inexperience of a man who has never held elected office or served in the military.
But only months later in April, in a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump affirmed the United States’ commitment to the alliance and praised its seven-decade history: “The Secretary General and I had a productive conversation about what more NATO can do in the fight against terrorism,” Trump said. “I complained about that a long time ago, and they made a change. Now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”
NATO members could continue failing to pay their way, leading to an American abandonment of the global military order. Having dug in so heavily on the issue, it is impossible for Trump to renege now. Trump plays to win and the only victory here is an expensive commitment to military spending at a time when governments are more keen to spend money at home.
No one is suggesting the US might consider quitting NATO based on an imbalance of payments, but the direction of travel is hardly encouraging for globalists.
The Trump-Merkel-NATO nexus: Nicht so gut
President Trump’s newest NATO remarks came at the heart of the alliance itself. With his fellow leaders stood in the background awkwardly shuffling like misbehaved schoolchildren awaiting their headteacher, Trump scolded NATO members for failing to pay their way.
His lack of warmth for the organisation and future commitment to it was on show for all to see: “Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they are supposed to be paying for their defence. This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States,” Trump said.
America first! Not even the slightest consideration for the rest.
The rebuke from Chancellor Merkel was stinging. “The times in which we could fully rely on others are partly over. I have experienced this in the last few days,” Merkel said at a campaign event in Germany. “We Europeans really have to take our destiny into our own hands.”
Infuriated by the German leader, President Trump fired a sharply worded tweet adding to already strained relations: “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change.”
This was not only a shot across the bows for German-US relations, but spelled danger for American commitment to NATO as Trump failed to publicly endorse the Article 5 of NATO on which the alliance is built.
The ability to retain US faith is NATO will depend on turning Trump’s opinion on a permanent basis. Trump’s view appears rooted in a transactional view of an imbalance of payments, where the US contributes far more in real terms to defence – 3.61 per cent of GDP – than any other member.
While the new President is right to ask members to pay more, it seems inconceivable that he would risk America’s real commitment to the organisation as a cheap bargaining chip. Worse, will Trump let the percentage of GDP figure completely dictate relations with America’s closest allies? In 2016 Germany only spent 1.19 per cent of GDP on defence, falling well short of the 2% minimum – does that alone mean Germany is on America’s black list?
For as long as Trump’s true feelings towards NATO remain unclear, all we will have to analyse are his very public acts and tweets.
His body language remains that of a strongman attempting to publicly bully allies into paying their fair share, gripping Emmanuel Macron’s hand in a vice and shoving the Montenegro Prime Minister out of the way in a photo-op. The small Balkan nation will officially become NATO’s 29th state signatory in June, but Trump’s message to current and future members was loud and clear – pay your way or get out of the way.
What that means for the future of the world order remains less certain. It is precisely that kind of global volatility that America’s enemies, not allies, will welcome.