MESOP SPECIAL – US Analysis: What Does President Trump Mean for NATO?

Mark Webber of the University of Birmingham, a specialist on NATO, offered these remarks to Japanese outlets after the election of Donald Trump as US President:

What do you think NATO’s main concerns will be about a Trump Presidency?The Secretary General [Jens Stoltenberg] made a statement after Trump’s election victory in which he congratulated Trump but he also reminded the US of its solemn commitment to the defence of its allies in Europe. The implication was clearly that there were some concerns about Trump’s commitments to doing so, with Poland and the Baltic States are exposed to the possibility of Russian destabilization.

Some NATO East-European leaders have been pretty open about this. However, it is pretty telling that a number of other leaders, such as British Prime Minister Theresa May and Francois Hollande, have been somewhat more welcoming of a Trump Presidency and it may well be the case that his rhetoric in the campaign is very different to his actions in government. It is entirely probable that once he has formed an administration, he will be surrounded by cooler heads.

So do you think that despite all his talk of reassessing US funds to NATO, he may be advised against pulling funding?

Some context here is important. The US for many years — in fact going back to the late 1960s — has been concerned about the gap between American, Canadianm and European defence expenditure. In that sense he’s not saying anything new.

He’s saying it in a far sharper form than previous Presidents. He’s crossed the line in another sense, in that he has argued that, if the Europeans continue to not spend up to NATO’s 2% GDP target, the US may revaluate its commitment to their defense. In that sense he is new. That is a singular break from declared American positions. But again, that is a position he has said while campaigning, not while in government.

If similar language were used after being inaugurated, that would be a historic shift in the American position. The US has never gone so far as to say that the unfair burden sharing on defense has been something to lead it to reassess the common defense.

The issue of funding is a bit misplaced. The US doesn’t fund NATO as such. NATO doesn’t really have much of a common fund. Issues of defense expenditure — not in terms of expenditure to NATO but the national spend (the UK spends just over 2% of GDP on national defence, the US spends something like 3.6%) — do not go to NATO as such. They are largely used for national purposes, but the point is the governments who spend a lot on defense have a greater ability to contribute to NATO.

This has always been a concern in the US: as the military shrinks in Europe; they are less deployable, less professional, and less able to contribute to missions.

The interesting point at the minute is the missions where the US is already committed: in Eastern Europe, the UK, Poland, and France. I guess the real crux of the matter would come if a Trump Presidency felt something more decisive needs to be done over Syria and then he may be looking for a European contribution. Although Trump is not on record actually saying he would intervene.

With regards to Syria, Trump seems to have quite a good relationship with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. Do you think that, that could be an advantage to NATO if he continues to cooperate or do you think this is just rhetoric?

It’s too soon to tell. He has made a number of noises towards improving relations with Russia. He has said he admires Putin but you may recall if you go back, George W Bush said early on in his presidency that he trusted Putin and said he could do business with him. So it’s not unusual for American leaders to use the rhetoric of partnership.

I suspect once the reality sets in, he will discover there are some real differences still between the US and Russia, not least in the world of business which is Trump’s background. Russia is very upper-hand in some of its global business practices. It has a worldwide network of cyber hacking which I suspect even Trump will regard with some suspicion.

I don’t think actually much will come of this idea that Trump will be a friend of Russia. Both [he and Putin] regard themselves as charismatic strongmen in politics. Often charismatic strongmen in politics don’t get on. They may get on temporarily, but the clash of egos can cause problems. For example, the Russian-Turkish problems — two countries led by authoritarian, charismatic leaders in [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and Putin.

What would be the consequences if Trump were to pull or limit the US contribution to NATO?

One possibility here is this. The US is committed to the European Reassurance Initiative, which is an American policy very generously funded by Congress to increase American military capacity in Eastern Europe. That funding could be pulled under Trump, and he would be able to do so because the Republicans have a majority in the congress. If that funding were pulled, it would require a reduction of the US military presence and commitment in Europe and that actually would require European governments to take their defence more seriously.

There is a meeting next week between European Foreign Ministers, including the British, to assess some of these possibilities. Although it wouldn’t be quick, you could imagine over two to three years that the bigger players — Germany, France, the UK, and Italy — may simply have to stump up more in defence if the US commitment to Europe starts to reduce.

The longer-term possibility is that people start to sit on their hands and hope that Trump’s is a one term Presidency because turning round defense takes a long time. It takes longer than four years and some countries may simply assume that he’s a one-term President and they can sit it out and the normality of good trans-Atlantic relations will resume in 2021.

Your readers may also be interested in the implications of all of this on Japan. Japan is not a NATO member, but if Trump does undermine the North Atlantic Treaty which binds NATO together, questions will then be asked about the defence treaty with Japan and also that with South Korea, which have an equal standing with the US treaty with NATO.

That is a worst case scenario, but it is an issue which is quite worrying.