09 August 2019

A populist in NATO’s yard. The North-Atlantic Alliance in the Trump Era

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Evolutions towards an increasingly more visible populism, which has been affecting the EU for several years – and which led to the unexpected result of the UK referendum – could not circle around NATO, in its political component. Because the Alliance is not only military, but also political, right? And populism is in both right-wing and left-wing. The rise in these currents is related to the decline of the liberal world, based on multilateralism, liberal values and institutions, the cooperation of these liberal institutions, and of course globalization. Populism has been attacking liberal realities and concepts, but even worse, it is seen as a fifth column of foreign powers which aim to weaken the Alliance. The examples of populist behavior are not few, from President Trump, to Brexit, to the political orientation in central and eastern Europe, to Turkey.

Image source: Hepta

An Alliance which populism did not circle around

Because populism can be confused with other concepts addressed for public debate, especially political ones, the clearest and simplest definition is that it opposes liberal values, liberal democracy, the current order based on liberal values. But in the media and in political circles, the sense of the concept is transmitted and received with more pejorative connotations, based on opportunity. Another definition is the one which approaches populism as a discourse of frustration addressed for the large masses, which feel neglected by the political elites. That is why populism proves to have superior activism to other political currents, and functioning on grand demonstrations, marches, aggressive discourse, providential leaders, and is used by both the political left and right.

In Europe and North America, populism profited from the problems of liberal economies, from the decisions taken after the 2008 crisis to impose austerity policies, which had negative effects on social communities and the lives of important categories of people. The growing gaps between those who have very much and those who have so little, corruption cases which touched the economic and political establishment from some Western European states have not helped block this current, of course. From this standpoint, populism also has aspects of well-deserved criticism for societies, which makes the pitch of those who propagate it – a lot of times only a bunch of demagogues whose ambitions are above the level of their personal substance – even more credible.

NATO, as political, military and security alliance has recently seen a series of internal debates, which the media presented as “crises” and which originated, most of them, from this area of populist trends which describe some of the policies of its member states.

A populist discourse based on an older reality

Maybe the most important consequence of reviving this politic trend is the debate caused by President Trump, which was perceived, in some circles, as potentially weakening the trans-Atlantic partnership. The challenge did not appear out of thin air, as it is based on a series of previous evolutions. The period which followed the Cold War repeatedly tested the solidity of trans-Atlantic ties. Disproportionate budgets for defence and the attempts of Europeans to free themselves from US “tutelage” are not new either. The current US president actually took over cases opened during the Obama Administration, with both presidents trying to lower, for different reasons, the US’ foreign commitments. If, politically, there is a continuity, there is a different discussion to be held on the political style and personalized approach.

From an US internal perspective, Europe is a prosperous area which bases this prosperity mostly on the security provided by the US. With an acute electoral sense, with his businessman background, and to be able to score points internally, President Trump is using the rhetoric of assuming a bigger responsibility in security and increased funding from Europeans in order to ensure it. Under the Trump Administration, the US policy towards NATO was, however, the same. However, what changed was the partnership discourse, in raising the intensity of criticism towards some members with “failing notices” in “defence spending”. And the president’s tweets, direct, unexpected, sometimes contradictory, put bitter cherries on the festive cake of NATO meetings.

The accent put on the requirement for 2% GDP for defence was the most visible and the most striking example of this approach.

NATO has received this approach positively, of course, but nuanced it through the voice of Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who utilized the phrase of the three “C-s”: Cash, Capabilities and Contributions, in order to highlight the fact that the percentage is not sufficient, but also the manner in which these funds are spent. The percentage, even if it is high, becomes insufficient if is spent on the salaries of military personnel, if the purchases overlap themselves, if there is no multi-annual budgetary planning.

The NATO Summit in Brussels, in 2018, was the one which most evidently had the Allies face a President Trump who was decided to use tactics from his electoral campaign in order to impose a series of “reparatory” measures. Some of the Allies’ reactions were disapproving, but the summit reached its goal. New commands were created for the Atlantic area and to coordinate strategic mobility (point 29 of the Final Declaration). The NATO Response Force will grow three times bigger, and the concept of the four “thirties” (30 mechanized battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 warships ready to be deployed within 30 days or less since they are alerted) was resumed in the “NATO Readiness Initiative”, in point 14 of the same document. The US increased its funding for NATO deterrence structures. So, despite the rhetoric, NATO probably received from the US even more than in the past.

A Brexit liberating European energies

The election of President Trump and Brexit made Europeans (NATO and, especially, EU members) to take into account the assumption of a greater responsibility for their own security. “The Brexit referendum and the U.S. election opened our eyes. Europeans must take more responsibility for our own security” was the statement which began this re-assessment, and it was made by in June 2017 by German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen.

A European example of populism is the one shown by Brexit. The British referendum surfaced frustrations against political elites, against the establishment, and also brought emotions to the forefront and pushed away the rational, while politicians who promoted it promised that this simple solution, that of leaving the EU, will be the answer to the UK’s complex problems. The result has, however, paradoxical aspects in the area of security:

- on one hand, it weakens cooperation in the military and security aspects of the EU in general (British military capabilities, its intelligence contribution etc.);

- on the other, it facilitates a jump forward, a concentration on the military cooperation of the other EU states, catalysed by this loss.

The populism birthed by Brexit carries on into the current period, in which Conservatives are electing a new chairman and prime minister, and continue negotiations with the EU. This will probably result in a forced exit of the United Kingdom from the EU (“hard Brexit”), a short-term economic decline (with less money for the defence budget), a new independence referendum for Scotland. Therefore, populism proves that it can obtain electoral victories, but cannot manage the periods that come after. And the controversies between the British and Europeans will also reciprocate within NATO. The “Atlanticist” current from within the Alliance will be weakened in favour of the “continental” one.

As for populist tendencies and manifestations from other NATO member states in Central and Eastern Europe, from Turkey, the discussion on its potential consequences on the Alliance or on NATO’s responsibility to “calm” down these trends is complex and sensible. The organization is, of course, a community of democratic nations, united by military and security interests, but also by common norms and values. So, theoretically, these values could also influence even military decisions, could condition for example, the activation of article 5 on the existence of liberal democracy in its North-Atlantic form in the member state which would benefit from this activation. The events in 2014 which led to the annexation of Crimea however, brought back the idea of ensuring “collective peace” in talks regarding NATO’s central component.

What do we do with common values?

The Alliance has mainly military objectives, and it is not in its interest to assume responsibilities in the field of imposing liberal-democratic values on its member states. A functional alliance with certain military objectives cannot dissipate its substance in order to solve the problems of liberal democracy. The other organization, the European Union, could do this. That is why Eastern European populists are free to experiment, as long as their approaches do not cause internal rifts into the organizations and are not connected with Russia’s attempts to use sharp power (a term which, especially, marks the information warfare carried out by Russia and China, through media and diplomatic resources) to weaken both organizations. That is when populism really becomes a problem for NATO. Currently, Hungary’s foreign policy, with its Eastern orientation, could, for example, be a source of concern for NATO, while Poland’s “attacks against democracy” are more of the EU’s jurisdiction. While Turkey remains the same as it was since it joined the Alliance.

What do we do with the double command in NATO, US and Europe?

The alliance recently celebrated 70 years of existence. Its longevity, appreciated to be longest in history while also being the most significant international organization of its kind, proves that NATO functions not only as a conjectural union against a temporary foreign threat, but also as an alliance of common values. And these values also evolve. As a matter of principle, when it formed in 1949, there were more things in common between the US and its European allies than there are now. At that moment, the threat was closer physically, several hundred kilometres away, but US forces were also massively deployed in Europe. Currently, the threat was pushed further to the east, and US deployment in Europe do not reach the same peaks registered in previous decades. Therefore, while the threat remains European, the guarantor of European security is across the Atlantic.

This led to a balance of contributions from both sides, in which the US ensures European security, while it received in exchange Europe’s support for its international decisions, even if they concerned other geopolitical spaces. The US assumed its modest role, taking into account the unbalance of being a military power towards its European partners, a “primus inter pares” / “first among equals” in an organization where decisions are taken by consensus. This balance can be fractured if US decisions start being contested by its partners, and if the place of economic cooperation, where there is tolerance for the competition, will be taken by fierce competition, in which all sanctions are utilized, in which European security will be ensured autonomously, case in which the role of trans-Atlantic guarantor is not so appreciated any more.

There are potential evolutions which appear as a result of extending the phenomenon of populism on both sides of the Atlantic. And, at this moment, we can make two balance sheets, which together resume the stage in which the organization currently finds itself:

1. a positive balance sheet, of the Alliance’s health, based on several elements:

- foreign threats (from the east and south) are clearly identified, monitored, evaluated;

- the financial burden is taken over on the run, with 2024 being the deadline to implement the standard of allotting 2% of the GDP for defence;

- measures for institutional and operational adaptation are also implemented gradually, in accordance with clear plans and realistic deadlines;

- relations between the EU and NATO are being adjusted to avoid duplications, in order to ensure the complementarity of the two organizations;

- drills (in a larger plan, operational concepts) are in accordance with the realities of the modern battlefield, of new technologies.

2. a balance sheet of controversies, which appeared especially after the beginning of President Trump’s term:

- the confidence crisis between the US and its Western European partners (NATO states in Eastern Europe have another perception), created by Trump’s “spontaneous” statements on his discomfort towards NATO;

- divisions which appeared as result of the insistence on financial contributions, by announcing earlier deadlines than the ones which were negotiated (2019 instead of 2024);

- imposing transaction-type relations in NATO’s internal dialogue;

- losing the role of traditional alliances between the US and its main NATO partners, United Kingdom, France, Germany (Trump having “cordial” relations with Paris and Berlin and not too good with London, where his sympathies lie with the “opposition” of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson), at the expense of better relations with some NATO Eastern European leaders, or even from outside the alliance, promoters of illiberalism (Hungary, Poland, Turkey or even Russia).

The positive elements are those especially from the arsenal of current security interests, of military aspects, of the Alliance’s main bond. The controversial elements belong more to the area of common values, where the populism of some leaders, the illiberalism promoted in a series of states, commerce as a negotiation norm can affect the organization’s democratic base.

The great hopes

The fact that there is a crisis within NATO is not contested. There were numerous such attempts in previous decades. What differentiates the current crisis from past one is that this time there are no contradictory discussions on military capabilities. Discussions which never got into the open, a lot of them. For the first time, talks revolve around common values, NATO’s capability to be a community. A world of liberal values is faced with nationalist, illiberal challenges, with populist messages.

And populism, together with illiberal tendencies exhibited by some member states, are nothing but wax poles in the construction of this organization which trans-Atlantic security has been based on for seven decades.

The hope is that the rest of the structure will stay made out of steel.

Translated by Ionut Preda