Nervous Nato partners wonder whether the transatlantic alliance can survive Trump
Europeans may brush off US president’s frequent criticism of the military partnership, but some analysts argue they are being complacent and its future is uncertain
The words “WE ARE ALLIES” are emblazoned in large yellow and white letters on fences around Nato headquarters in Brussels, in anticipation of Wednesday’s summit.
After nearly seven decades of the most successful alliance in world history, this sort of reminder should not be necessary. But given the events of the past year and a half, there is little doubt about what this message is meant to say and to whom.
Donald Trump will be in Brussels for the summit next week and he is showing every intention of disrupting any attempt at consensus and solidarity.
“I’ll tell Nato, you got to start paying your bills,” Trump told a wildly cheering crowd in Montana on Thursday. The president pondered aloud about the value for the US in paying for the collective defence of Germany.
He said he told Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel: “You know Angela, I can’t guarantee it, but we’re protecting you and it means a lot more to you than protecting us because I don’t know how much protection we get by protecting you.”
The denigration of Nato and the EU, long-standing US allies, has become about as common in the US president’s oratory as his praise for Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, who he will meet in Helsinki on July 16.
“‘You know – President Putin is KGB’ and this and that,” Trump said, referring to criticism of his relationship with the Russian leader. “You know, Putin’s fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine. We’re people.”
The US Ambassador to Nato Kay Bailey Hutchinson briefed journalists this week in an attempt to provide a more orthodox narrative, insisting that the Nato alliance was firm and the US would stand in solidarity with its western partners in holding Russia to account for its perceived interference in Ukraine, its alleged meddling in western elections and alleged use of nerve agent in the UK.
But nobody knows what Trump will say in Brussels or Helsinki, or during his UK trip in between. As he showed after the June G7 summit in Quebec, he can trigger a crisis in western cohesion with just a few off-the-cuff jibes aimed at old allies.
US and European officials have uniformly sought to play down the significance of Trump’s antics, insisting the underlying sinews of the Atlantic alliance are strong. The implication is that Trump has come like a bolt from the blue and will eventually go, while the interlocking security institutions of the west and its common values will outlast him.
However, some western leaders and senior officials are beginning to wonder whether this somewhat complacent assessment is still valid. After all, they point out, Trump is not yelling into a void. When he trashed Nato in Montana, thousands of people yelled their approval. He won the 2016 election and maintains a 90 per cent approval rating among Republicans because he has tapped into a deeply buried reflex in American politics.
In that case, the pessimists argue, perhaps Trump is not the exception, an anomaly in transatlantic progress. Maybe Nato itself is the anomaly and US suspicion of and disengagement from Europe are the norm.
“What is on the table right now, in a sort of brutal way is a real problem is not created by President Trump and will not vanish at the end of the term or terms of President Trump,” a senior European official said. “The transatlantic relationship that all of us around the table consider as a given – is not a given.”
The signs were already there during Barack Obama’s administration, this worried official argued. He just did not express his disengagement as crudely and rudely as Trump.
“I think that most Europeans are dreaming that after the term of Trump we will go back to business as usual,” he added, making it clear he thought that was not going to happen. “For the Europeans it is quite a wake-up call. For the Europeans suddenly, their world is shattered.”
With the cold war conditions that persuaded the US to stay engaged in Europe after the second world war now in the past, some argue it is inevitable the Americans would at some point reconsider their role.
“After 1919 and 1945 we had these huge debates on should we stay in Europe or should we go home,” said the US historian Walter Russell Mead. “After 1990 there was very little debate. The assumption was that we would double down on the world order building agenda that we applied to the west in the cold war – but we’d now do that globally. We never had that debate. So I think we’re having it now.”
Mead views Trump and his supporters as a throwback to an earlier school of US foreign policy, embodied by Andrew Jackson, who he argues was the country’s first populist president. Jacksonian foreign policy is focused on defending that nation against malign influences and the cosmopolitan impulses of the elites.
Within days of his inauguration in January 2017, Trump hung a portrait of Jackson, known as the “Indian killer” for his brutal campaigns against Native Americans, in the Oval Office.
The idea that Trump’s ascendancy reflects a reversion back to an earlier American norm is controversial. Many political analysts and historians argue it projects a coherence on to the president’s foreign policy impulses that is not there in reality.
Even as Trump rails against Nato, his administration – the Pentagon in particular – has been boosting its commitment to the alliance in resources and troops deployed on its eastern flank.
The new commitments reflect the atlanticist convictions of the US military and diplomatic corps, who may well be trying to compensate for Trump’s anti-Nato rhetoric.
“It’s never just one or the other,” Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian historian and Oxford University professor, said. “The idea that there is a default mode of being involved or a default mode of not being involved is too bipolar. It’s much more complex.”
However, MacMillan added, even if Trump does not represent a once-and-for-all shift in US foreign policy, that does not mean his anti-European rhetoric and embrace of controversial leaders is not having a long-term corrosive effect on transatlantic relations. “I think Trump is doing an awful lot of damage and these things are not easily undone.”