Trump, NATO, and the Future of European Security

by Robert E. Hunter

This year could be shaping up as an annus horribilis for transatlantic security. Of course, the year is still far from over, so some correctives are still possible.

Most immediately in the news are comments by the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump. His remarks on whether as US president he would honor NATO’s sacrosanct pledge on the defense of allies that are the victims of aggression caused quite a hullabaloo, including a chastising by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

But one should look at what Trump actually said to the Times’ David Sanger and Maggie Haberman. Trump did not in fact say that he would not honor the US commitment to allies. Rather, he put his remarks in the context of what, throughout NATO history, has been called “burden-sharing”—the effort by the United States to get allies to spend more on the common defense. He was also not dispositive about what he would do or not do in any particular situation regarding threats:

Sanger: If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?

Trump: I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do. I have a serious chance of becoming president and I’m not like Obama, that every time they send some troops into Iraq or anyplace else, he has a news conference to announce it.

Sanger: They are NATO members, and we are treaty-obligated ——

Trump: We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.

Sanger: That’s true, but we are treaty-obligated under NATO, forget the bills part.

Trump: You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.

Sanger: My point here is, Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations ——

Trump: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.

Haberman (New York Times): And if not?

Trump: Well, I’m not saying if not [italics added]. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.

What Trump Got Wrong

Since NATO’s beginning, America’s commitment to its allies’ security against aggression has been the cornerstone of the alliance. Any doubt about that commitment in the minds of an adversary—or any legitimate doubt in the minds of an ally—could bring the whole structure of European security crashing down, even in the post-Cold War era. Thus Trump committed a major folly from which, if he were to become president, it would be difficult if not impossible for him to recover in term of America’s and his own credibility.

But Trump was primarily saying, inelegantly and perhaps dangerously, that allies need to “fulfill their obligations to us” (the United States and, by extension, NATO.) Further, in terms of the NATO goal that each ally should spend at least 2% of its GDP on defense, most allies are not fulfilling that particular “obligation.” Indeed, only 5 of the 28 allies do so; Britain is one, but barely so and only through creative accounting. Thus the 2% goal is a sign of alliance weakness, not strength.

Trump was also not technically incorrect in terms of the actual wording of the NATO Treaty. If any ally is subject to “armed attack,” that “shall be considered an attack against them all.” But there is nothing automatic about a military response. Rather, “each ally [will take forthwith] such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force” [italics added]. The US insisted on that qualification to preserve its freedom of action. But, of course, no commitment by the alliance would have any meaning if the United States stood aloof. That understanding has been the heart and soul of NATO ever since.

Thus Trump clearly got the necessary US mantra wrong, and allies in Central Europe are right to worry about what he might do in a crisis if he becomes president—which, however unlikely, is still possible. At the same time, Trump is calling to account what even the current president, Barack Obama, has criticized as “free riders.”

Both Trump and Obama have miscast the matter, however. Six years ago, outgoing US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates laid down the 2% of GDP goal for each ally’s defense spending. But it is not clear how relevant that number is to Western security. On its own, it says little about “capabilities.” Nor does it say anything about the overall requirements of European security. Those requirements include doing enough to show Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Central European allies are not a write-off for the alliance, and NATO is following through. But beyond so-called “trip wire” deployments, providing for European security is less about the size of military forces and defense spending and more about other things. Most important is to bolster the economies and politics of Central European states. This is what Putin has most to fear from Western pushback: that European democracy will be strong and that vulnerable economies in Central Europe, especially in Ukraine, are built up to the point that the Russians will have little chance of subverting them.

At the moment, democracy in two Central European States, Poland and Hungary, is under challenge—to say nothing of the trammeling of democracy in Turkey after the failed coup attempt. Ukraine is also far from meeting the minimum standard. Its rampant corruption, moreover, undercuts effective governance in the country and thus plays directly into Putin’s hands.

In fact, given that few NATO allies will ever meet the 2% goal, it would be far better for the alliance to adopt a larger goal, say 3% of GDP for security expenditures more generally understood, with emphasis on economic support for Central European economies and especially Ukraine. Under the circumstances, that would help provide real security in Central Europe.

Other European Security Errors

What Trump has done is to err in a major way about the solidity of the US commitment—though Putin is hardly likely to read that as a green light for aggression against a NATO ally. But Trump’s has not been the only error. NATO committed one of its own at the recent summit in Warsaw, when it repeated a reckless pledge from eight years ago that the Republic of Georgia will become a member of NATO. That will that never happen, which was demonstrated during the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict when not a single ally came to Georgia’s defense. Worse, renewing this feckless and hypocritical pledge just plays to Putin’s domestic propaganda that NATO is seeking to “surround” Russia.

Further blows to European security have also come from the United Kingdom. One unfortunate byproduct of Brexit is that the UK will leave the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), which has a military component that supplements NATO’s. Britain has never liked CFSP, seeing it as a competitor to the Atlantic Alliance, and has regularly sought to weaken it. But Brexit also means, ineluctably, that Britain will be less engaged in the critical triangle of Britain, France, and Germany that is a core element of European politics and security.

Then in her first foreign policy decision, the new British Prime Minister Theresa May committed an unforced error by pushing through parliament the modernization of Britain’s Trident-based nuclear deterrent. These weapons have long since lost any practical utility. There are almost no foreseeable circumstances in which Britain could still need a nuclear arsenal, and it impresses no one, friend or (potential) foe. In the 1960s, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said that the UK’s nuclear deterrent was a card needed to get it “to the top table,” but those days are long gone.

At best, continuing Trident is just a waste of money. But there’s the rub. If Britain is to continue to be taken seriously as a significant power, and notably so in Washington, it needs to have reasonably serious military forces, and those are all non-nuclear. With Trident modernization, at least 31 billion pounds are lost to that cause, and NATO’s military capacities will be that much weakened.

So Trump’s “loose lips” have not helped the Western alliance (though he is most unlikely to become US commander-in-chief). But the combination of Brexit and May’s decision on Trident has, quite literally, “sunk ships,” and that is bad for Britain, its relations with the United States, and Western security.

Photo: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg courtesy of SHAPE NATO via Flickr.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. Whatever about Trident it ensures that whatever happens in the world no one will ever fire Nuclear weapons at the UK unless they are happy to be toast themselves. If I was PM & Argentina attacked the Falklands & the only way to remove them was to sit a Trident Submarine in their waters then that is what I would do especially as it would remove the need to assemble 100 ships & 60,000 men with tanks & planes to recover them. You have to believe in the weapons for them to be effective used or unused & whoever is sat in the Casa Rosada & the Kremlin need to know that you will use them too.

Comments are closed.