Unpredictability is never an asset in foreign or defence policy, so the election of the mercurial Donald Trump to the US presidency is already causing conniptions in European capitals, especially those of Central Europe.
Even before the official announcement of Trump’s win, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen was calling for him to give assurances over his commitment to Nato.
“Of course, we Europeans, as a Nato ally, know that if Donald Trump becomes president, he’ll ask: What are you contributing to this alliance?” von der Leyen, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU party, was quoted by Reuters as saying. “But we’re also wondering, what’s your position on this alliance?”
The nervousness stems from comments Trump made a number of times during the election campaign that called into question America’s continued commitment to defending other Nato nations under Article 5 of the treaty if they do not comply with the alliance’s rules on defence spending, as well as referring to the alliance as “obsolete”.
In this, even his harshest critics say he has a point. Currently, the only European Nato members that meet the defence spending floor of 2% of GDP are the UK, Estonia, Greece and Poland; the other 23 countries fall short of the Nato guideline by roughly 1 percentage point. Nato says the European allies spent $253bn on defence in 2015, or 1.4% of GDP, compared with $618bn by the US, leaving the continent about $100bn a year shy of what they should be spending under the 2% guideline.
“He has a valid point about the fact that the European don’t want to pay to defend themselves,” said Lord Renwick, a former UK ambassador to Washington DC. “The balance of spending on defence is 75% US, 25% European – and that’s simply not good enough.”
This seems to be Trump’s central focus, the money: while also making sometimes contradictory statements about whether the US would pull out of the alliance, each time he has come back to the issue of Nato members contributing properly to their defence.
“Nato was set up when we were a richer country,” Trump told the Washington Post earlier this year. “We’re not a rich country anymore. We’re borrowing, we’re borrowing all of this money… Nato is costing us a fortune and yes, we’re protecting Europe with Nato, but we’re spending a lot of money. Number one, I think the distribution of costs has to be changed. I think Nato as a concept is good, but it is not as good as it was when it first evolved.”
The issue is given further piquancy by the increasingly aggressive posture of Russia in Europe, which includes annexing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, fuelling the conflict in eastern Ukraine with arms and troops, the buzzing of Nato airspace, and fomenting trouble in several European and Nato states in Central and Eastern Europe, from Moldova to the Baltic states. Furthermore, Trump has overturned decades of Republican suspicions about Russia and policies designed to contain the country by embracing the idea of closer ties and lauding its authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin.
The election of Trump comes at the same time as Nato is finally responding to Russian aggression, with Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s secretary-general, and other officials saying earlier this week that hundreds of thousands of Nato troops will be put on a higher state of alert. Sir Adam Thomson, the UK’s outgoing permanent representative to Nato, told The Times that he thought the goal was to speed up the response time of up to 300,000 military personnel to about two months. At present a force of this size could take up to 180 days to deploy.
Other Nato measures include the deployment of 4,000 troops to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland from next year – countries that are on the front line of the rising tensions with a newly assertive Russia and the ones most nervous about what a Trump presidency means for their security.
That a Trump presidency will have implications for European defence is not in doubt; the extent of the impact, however, is open to debate.
While admitting that if you are sitting in the Baltics today “you won’t be feeling good”, Lord Renwick points out that the founding fathers of America envisaged one day a maverick like Trump getting into the White House and so have built checks and balances to contain presidential power. He also points out that Trump’s first priority will be the fight against Islamic State, “where he needs the close involvement of [the UK] and the French”.
Others like Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Tony Blair, are more worried. “What’s happened is a triumph of isolationism, nativism and protectionism,” Powell told the BBC’s Today programme. “We face a really serious problem… being that the international trade system is thrown up in the air, we’ll be much less prosperous than we were and much less secure than we were as Nato will be undermined – he’s been clear he thinks Nato is obsolete.”
Thomas Wright, an expert on US foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, is just as forthright, saying that the key question is whether Trump means he wants others in US defence alliances to pay a little more, or whether he opposes the alliances overall.
“I’m of the view that he opposes them overall for a few reasons. The first is that he has said that the US has no strategic interest in being in Asia militarily. He said Nato’s original mission is obsolete – so he doesn’t seem to see any need for the US [military] to be forwardly present – and he’s said that the US should only do that if others pay. When he talks about payment, we often think he means [other countries spending at least] 2% of GDP [on defence], but actually what he seems to mean is that he judges the cost [as] the cost of the US presence in those regions. So it’s the cost of having [US Pacific Command] and the Seventh Fleet [in Japan and South Korea], or having the US Army in Europe. He said at the Center for the National Interest speech that the cost to the United States of these alliances was in the trillions of dollars. You only get to trillions of dollars if you’re counting in hundreds of billions per year.”
Russia concerned by Nato
From its standpoint the Kremlin sees Nato as the problem and the aggressor, not a vehicle of European security. President Vladimir Putin has complained continuously about Nato expansion up to Russia’s borders.
The Kremlin has argued that Nato is a Cold War institution set up to protect the West from a potential conflict with the Soviet Union. In the post-Cold War world, Moscow says it is time to ditch the organisation and draw up new a pan-European security deal – an idea that has gone down like a lead balloon in Brussels.
However, a recent poll from the Chicago Council Survey and Russia’s last independent pollster, the Levada Center in Moscow, found that even if these sort of ideas are not popular with Western governments, they may play better to both the people of Russia and the US – and Trump is nothing if he is not a populist.
“While there is common ground in public concerns about global threats, the surveys also show a great deal of mutual distrust. Russians express a sense of insecurity about US strength and influence, and prefer that their country aim to limit US international sway. Although Americans believe that Russia is acting to contain US power, the US public favors cooperation and engagement rather than containing Russia,” the survey concluded.
“A majority of Americans say that in dealing with Russia, the United States should undertake friendly cooperation and engagement (56%) rather than actively work to limit Russia’s power (39%). Democrats are 12 percentage points more likely to favour cooperation than Republicans (62% Democrats, 50% Republicans). In addition, despite Donald Trump’s relatively open views toward cooperating with Russia, his core supporters feel no different than Republicans overall (47% of core Trump supporters support cooperation),” the survey found.
It is surveys like these that Trump could use to justify a policy of weakening US commitment to Nato and attempting yet another reset in US relations with Russia.
Nerves on the frontline
None of this will reassure the nervous governments in the Baltics and Poland, which just hosted the latest annual Warsaw Security Forum that brings together scholars and journalists, ex-presidents and serving ministers, soldiers and arms dealers. According to bne columnist Mark Galeotti who attended the event, viewed from Washington or London, Russia tends to be framed as a challenge, a problem; in Warsaw, discussion is about Russia as an outright threat.
“This is more than just a question of semantics, or political correctness (and the lack thereof). While some further west do accuse the frontline states of inflating the scale of the danger in order to mobilise public support and inflate their own role within Nato in particular (and this is not completely false), it does the Poles and Balts in particular a disservice to regard it as so much crying wolf,” he writes in his latest Stolypin column.
Judging by the Warsaw Security Forum, Galeotti noted that within Central European security elites there is a level of determination to counter the Russian threat, visible in Poland's commitment to raise its defence spending above Nato's requirement of 2% of GDP – something the head of Nato has been at pains to stress during the presidential campaign, that defence spending among Nato members is at last on the rise.
Whether that will be enough to satisfy the new occupant of the White House remains to be seen.