10 July 2018

America First but… stronger with the allies

Ştefan Oprea

As in the previous years, the leaders of the state members of the strongest military alliance that the history gave us are meeting in Bruxelles to consolidate their unity, their grit and their capacity to solve the tense issues of international security that the world is facing nowadays.

Image source: Mediafax

[ Romanian Version HERE ]


But, unlike the period of conventional and sureness, specific for the previous decades, this time, the well-known routine disappeared, as everyone is waiting for the declarations and the reactions of Donald Trump during this summit.

At the NATO Summit from 11-12th of July, the first major multilateral meeting after the last one of G7, in Canada, president Trump will meet with the leaders of the NATO allies.

This is a meeting of the nations that are sharing today the values of the liberal democracy and that committed themselves in the effort of immediate and strong fight-back if someone threats these values, at its origins, as we see today in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria or the Balkans, but also to fight against piracy.

 Even so, the interrogations that president Donald Trump is making against the fundamental institutions of the international system, that the US actually created and supported after the Second World War, and made free commerce, common security and major collective decisions possible, determined the majority of the European leaders (and not only them) to be concerned about the actual administration policy.

Even if before, and moreover after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were controversies and disagreements in NATO, some really hard to manage, this time the situation is really different.

 It is not a secret that the American president, Donald Trump, doesn’t trust the efficiency of the European Union and NATO. The disagreements that exist between the American president and some of key-leaders of Europe (Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Justin Trudeau, and even Emmanuel Macron, with whom he has a really distant relation now, despite the previous level of relation they had before) and the attitude that sometimes seems hostile regarding the alliance, seem to be arguments hard to deal with. Among with the pressure made by Russia against the space that is limitrophe with NATO, the transatlantic relation can reach an inflection point.  

A repeated attitude of the president Donald Trump as the one he had at G7 Canada summit, followed by the warm meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong UN, his missing from the NATO meeting and by having a concessive meeting with Vladimir Putin, can create the most profound crisis since the Alliance appeared, 70 years ago. The concerns are coming also from the possible arrangements that can be made during the meeting between Trump and Putin.

Even if it is not convenient for everyone, going back to the Cold War, the possible announce regarding the significant retraction of the American troops from Europe, the attenuation of the European Commandment funds of the US or stopping the exercises with the East NATO members, that Russia considers to be “challenging” (as the pauses made during the military exercises with South Korea) are major concerns.

Moreover, a series of international challenges, from the relations with Russia, China, and Middle East to problems as global mitigation, the role of the multilateral and free commerce organizations, won’t find a way to be solved until the US political attitude regarding NATO, EU and other institutions is changed.

In these circumstances, the European leaders are forced to consider a possible degradation of the Europe’s strategically view. Although Trump’s administration did not amended or retract from the transatlantic relation, various European leaders seem to be bothered by the “America First” foreign policy of Trump’s administration, and some of them ask themselves if the US will remain a partner they can still count on in 2018 and so on.

From this perspective, the NATO leaders wish that the summit, if president Trump’s temperament won’t explode, give solutions and consensus for the Alliance’s survival without any irreparable damages, so that to identify the solutions for the tactical and strategically realities they are facing today. These include also the mission in Afghanistan, protecting the members from the East Alliance’s flank, a plan to approach the issues of the Arctic Ocean (where Moscow is more and more active), as well as the role of NATO in the Middle East and especially the fight against Terrorism.  

Ironically, all of these are happening when the efforts of growing defence spending coming from the Europeans and Canada are concrete, as the established graphic.

The same nations, although in the last decades they attenuated the spending on defence area, committed, until 2024, to increase this spending to 2% of the GDP, and some of these reached this bar already. Although the deadline is reasonable, through the letter addressed to some of the NATO leaders (Canada, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Luxemburg, Holland and Germany), president Trump looks anxious, even if the European budget for defence reaches around 300 billion dollars per year, being the second defence budget in the world, after the US one.  

And still, in the message addressed to the Norwegian president, Erna Solberg, from 19th of June, Trump said that despite the important role of his country in the Alliance, Norway “remains the only NATO ally that shares the border with Russia and that does not have a concrete plan to spend 2% from the GDP on defence”.

Regarding Germany, Trump says that except for their rejection related to paying fair their rate, with consequences on the Alliance’s security, Berlin’s attitude will be a negative example for the allies that do not wish to accomplish their commitments regarding military spending.  

Trump’s intention to help the allies to accomplish these objective was not that well received by some NATO leaders and, considering his previous position regarding commerce, this is actually an established attitude.

If we look at the specific equipment’s evolution, another controversial subject, we can affirm that there are some countries in Europe, like France, Germany, Great Britain or Italy, that reach the American performances in this area, even if the majority of the NATO states do not have this technology.

As during history there were moments when the equipment’s performances marked the evolution of the war, today, the appearance and the study of the combination between artificial intelligence, automatic learning, offensive cybernetic capabilities and electronic war in the fight space, suggest that a new moment of technic revolution is really close. From this point of view, among the US, China and Russia, leaders in military technologies, the European Union should became and important pawn.

The retraction of the US military forces from Europe represents another theme approached by president Trump, regarding the American commitments abroad. Considering that at the end of the Cold War, the US had almost 400.000 military men in Europe, and today has only 65.000, the proportion becomes really stupid, especially as these troops are not used only as discouragements troops against Russia, but also as American contingents trained to action in Afghanistan and Middle East. Even if the American military officials think that the revision activity of deployed dimensions is a routine activity of costs-profits analysis of the appropriate forces at the appropriate place, it is obvious that these discussions happened as a result of the tensions between Trump and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

The big challenges coming from China makes the US, the only military force with global valences, to feel the effects of a strategic overloads. From this perspective, the Europeans should consider more the US’s effort attenuation if these will keep strong their commitment for Europe’s security and defence.

If we add to these approaches that president Trump wants to meet president Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki, Finland (16th July), a few days after the summit, the situation is suggestive. Treating the problems regarding the interventions of the Russia in the US elections with ambiguity, the suggestion in which Crimea is part of Russia, as well as the possibility that at the meeting to be no experts, increases the European leaders concerns to a possible geostrategic evolution.

Another aspect that concerns the European leaders (the majority of the NATO members) is the impact of the EU commitment to NATO and how can the EU-NATO relation recalibrate to make sure that it won’t end up by damaging the transatlantic relation.

In the same time, EU confronts with lots of internal challenges as: Brexit, concerns regarding the law supremacy on Poland and Hungary, managing the mitigation issue and the Catalan secessionism. This type of issues gets the attention of the EU and might limit the capacity to collaborate with the US on foreign policy.

Despite the potential challenges that transatlantic relations are facing with in 2018, the majority of the European governments see the political and economic links with the US as a base of the foreign relations and security politics. A lot of European decisional factors hope to keep the partnership with the US regarding some aspects as: cooperation in security decisions, supporting the multilateral institutions, security, fighting against terrorism, promoting cybernetic security, solving Ukraine’s crisis.

Even if the last events: G7 reunion, commercial conflict, American taxes on aluminum and steel, as well as the discussions about the military spending at the NATO summit, make the concerns about a possible continuity to become more and more real, a balance approach to attenuate the current tensions will be a victory for the Alliance.   

In the same context, the Europeans will find themselves in the difficult situation to choose between damaging the transatlantic relations and keeping these only for security purposes.

Now is the moment when NATO, through an effort of creativity, wisdom and also a realistically political view, these divergent approaches to come to an end, and their effects to be immediate.

Despite the fact that European nations agree with the American demand regarding the augmentations of the contribution for their defence, they will not accept to be seen as threats against the security of the US. Such attitude could have severe strategically implications, especially if encourages countries such as Russia, China or Iran to try to explore westerns divisions, with dangerous consequences for world’s peace.

The one to deal with is the alliance’s future, that kept the western stability and prosperity in the last 7 decades and that proved to be a united transatlantic family.

Arguments as the commitment of the majority of the allies to reach the new rate for defence spending, the EU progress to use a part of its budget for research and military development financing, the convenience initiative of the mobility forces on the continent, as well as the intention to exempt the American efforts in Iraq through a training plan of the Iraqi security forces against the Islamic state, can balance the bad temper attitude of president Trump.

Still, the Europeans simply cannot buy American commitments through increasing defence spending, and NATO cannot sustain itself as a political alliance if the rest of them only see it in transactional terms.

In the light of the current transatlantic relation, it will be on the Europeans to present a clear and strong vision about what NATO represents in 21 century.

Also, the Europeans must transmit a unity message to be seen as serious by Trump’s administration, and from this point of view, the European states need a strategically common approach to face these challenges.

From NATO’s purpose, to protect the freedom and the security of all its members, the collective defence is the Alliance’s essence and creates a solidarity and cohesion spirit between the members. NATO represents the transatlantic link through which the North America’s security is linked to Europe’s security, being able to accomplish, through its member’s contribution, the stability in the euro-Atlantic space.  

So the European priorities should include a bigger commitment against its own security, feasible by defence spending, the eventual creation of a European pillar in NATO, and not least, by launching an initiative on weaponry control theme, that would help to prevent the risk of a major conflict.  

If we add to this the fact that the US doubled its budget allocation for the Reassurance European Initiative- REI- has its forces deployed in East Europe, reduces the American tanks on the continent and assures a commission for protecting the maritime and communicational lines to Atlantic, confirms the fact the Washington, despite their blunt approach, wants to keep a successful alliance.

A calm and efficient course of the discussions during the summit will create the convenient ambient for productive talks between presidents Trump and Putin, that will be set up in Helsinki. The discussion on current themes (the non-proliferation of the nuclear weaponry and the weaponry control, the attenuation of the tensions that were amplified by the deployments of the anti-racket defence systems of the US in Europe, informational security, the methods to get to an end the sanctions war, preventing the dangerous military activity, the NATO- Russia, Ukraine, Syria, Lybia etc. relation) without expecting magical evolution, can make the fundamental issues that antagonizes the two countries to evaluate positively from now on and benefit the entire world.


Let’s all hope that despite the major divergences on various problems, the tension that dominates the high level relations and some other factors that shake the transatlantic relation, the NATO summit from 11-12th of July will produce positive and concrete results