by Robert E. Hunter
Lasts week’s NATO mini-ministerial in Washington was designed to inject new lifeblood into the alliance, demonstrate solidarity, and send a message to President Donald Trump. Even though NATO didn’t hold a summit meeting on the occasion of its seventieth birthday because of the risk that Trump would be the skunk at the alliance’s picnic as he was the last two years, NATO leaders wanted to reassert that the alliance is alive and well.
This message was underscored by the unprecedented invitation extended to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to address a Joint Session of Congress, where he received no fewer than 18 standing ovations. Every U.S. thinktank on the East Coast held some form of celebration, with endless speeches and op-eds affirming fealty to transatlantic relations, albeit without producing much in the way of new ideas or strategic analysis.
President Trump, the uninvited non-guest only a few blocks away, could have made a reassuring drop by, but didn’t. He did meet with Stoltenberg in the Oval Office and, as usual, pressed for more allied military spending. Vice President Mike Pence also echoed that theme of burden-sharing, the oldest song in the NATO hymnal. Stoltenberg played his dutiful part and deftly complimented Trump both directly and to Congress for getting the allies to begin taking seriously NATO’s holy writ of spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense.
Euphoria on Capitol Hill about NATO’s glorious past and its promising future as well as bipartisan expressions of U.S. commitment may translate into appropriations and other evidence of genuinely caring for transatlantic security, but maybe not to the extent that European and Canadian allies hope. Indeed, the invitation to Stoltenberg to speak to Congress, which originated with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was at least in part a means of getting back at Trump, as Democrats look for just about any way to wrong-foot the president. His occasional ambivalence about NATO is thus a political opening.
But for all the positive messages about NATO last week, four items suggest that NATO’s appeals are not having the hoped-for resonance.
Although all the allies are committed to NATO’s agreed military spending standard, the deadline for meeting that standard is 2024. During those five years, a lot could transpire with Russia, in Central Europe, and elsewhere where Western interests are involved and some military contribution by allies would be appropriate. Further, as of now, only seven of the 27 European members of NATO make the grade.
There is also a risk of getting what one wishes for. U.S. leaders have singled out Germany for opprobrium: its defense spending is only 1.2 percent of GDP. Lost in translation is that if Germany did meet the 2 percent target, it would then have the world’s third largest military (after the United States and China and well ahead of all other allies and even Russia). This would not be reassuring to any of Germany’s neighbors, however much the old “German problem” has been laid to rest. Already, some commentators are trying to resurrect it, ignoring that Germany is surrounded by other NATO allies and EU members, as well as being firmly anchored in both institutions, and the Euro has replaced the Deutschmark.
Military math is also a funny thing. The United States does meet the 2 percent standard it called for in the Obama administration, by spending about 3.5% of GDP on defense. But the portion Washington commits to NATO is under one percent of U.S. GDP.
Dealing with Russia
The Alliance now seems unified in identifying Russia as the enemy and restoring old provisions for containment and deterrence. By actions in Crimea and elsewhere—notably cyber-attacks and meddling in Western politics—Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, have brought hardened NATO attitudes on themselves.
But overlooked in the United States is the role that it and NATO also played in helping to ruin chances after the end of the Cold War to develop productive and non-threatening relations with Moscow. Further, Secretary General Stoltenberg this week did repeat the mantra of wanting to couple “deterrence, defense, and dialogue” with Russia, but virtually nothing is being done, by either side, to promote a dialogue.
Trump is the first president since George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to understand that the West must live with a Russia that is no longer the basket case it was when the Soviet Union collapsed. Indeed, when he met with Stoltenberg last week, Trump said “I hope that [Russia’s] not going to be a security threat. I hope we have a good relationship with Russia and with, by the way, China and everybody else.” But Trump is inhibited in trying to promote better relations with Moscow by the role that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election has played in Democratic Party’s explanations for Hillary Clinton’s defeat, along with its search for some means of getting rid of Trump prior to the 2020 election.
The NATO meetings last week completely ignored what at this moment is the most important internal threat to the cohesion of the West and the future of Europe, namely the political circus of Brexit. If the UK does leave the European Union, and as of now it is anyone’s guess, there is trouble ahead for European security in the broadest sense. This will be true despite the British pretense that the UK’s commitment to European security will be just as strong as ever because of its role in NATO.
However, much more than loyalty to NATO is involved, including Britain’s role in helping to mediate between Berlin and Paris, which will go by the board. Also ended will be serious British support for continental efforts to forge viable EU foreign policies and support for non-military efforts to promote political and economic development in Central Europe, in part to keep Russia in check. Despite denials by Whitehall, if Britain leaves the EU, it will also leave these key non-NATO parts of European security. Vladimir Putin can hardly contain his satisfaction at the turmoil in Westminster.
Britain’s chances of playing a robust role in Europe have already been damaged by what has been happening to its politics, from which it is unlikely to recover for some time. It is not even clear that the current parties can survive the internal struggles.
Security is More than Military
For NATO to succeed in Europe, the alliance itself must also work hand in glove with the EU. A quarter century ago, as U.S. ambassador to NATO, I argued that it and the EU were “two institutions living in the same city (Brussels) on different planets.”
The relationship is closer now. But there is still not the required understanding that security in Europe must be a mixture of politics, economics, military activity, and the full engagement of the private sector. That was true when NATO and the European Movement began in the late 1940s. It is equally true, today.
But except for two words, NATO’s terse ministerial statement issued at the end of its shortest-ever ministerial meeting did not acknowledge that the EU even exists. Indeed, for the last two decades, NATO and EU summits should have been held in parallel or even together. Although often proposed, this has not happened. European and transatlantic security, in their widest and essential dimensions, have suffered. Again, Putin is pleased.
At the very least, NATO should revise its goal of each member spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense to spending something more like 3 percent. A significant portion of that sum, however, should go to economic and political development, beginning in Central Europe, especially Ukraine, plus in other places where the alliance has security interests. The military spending bar then could be set at below 2 percent. Several European countries already meet a 3 percent overall-security test, and Germany could do so without raising concerns about an over-large military. This idea, too, has been often suggested but has gone nowhere even as NATO struggles with a 2 percent military spending goal that is unlikely ever to be met by all the allies—thus a sign of weakness, not strength.
NATO left town on Wednesday, in the afterglow of cheerleading that was at least better than public dismay. But it also left behind unanswered questions that go to the heart of promoting transatlantic relations. The allies will hold a summit in Brussels in December, with all of NATO’s top leaders in attendance. Whether the eight months between now and then will be used wisely—for instance, to create a full set of transatlantic understandings in all key dimensions and involving the EU as well as NATO—is doubtful. That should have been mandated by NATO last week (it was proposed by more than one member, to no effect). Whether this is now done will be a more important test of the future of relations across the Atlantic than any of the NATO oratory this past week.