Throughout the election campaign, candidate Donald Trump was berated for suggesting that NATO was redundant and for implying that the US would pull its forces out of Europe. In stark contrast, President Trump has already made moves to strengthen NATO and significantly boost Western security.
Trump’s statements on NATO appeared to be contradictory and may have misled both Europeans and Russians into thinking that the White House would move to disband the Alliance and terminate US commitments to the defense of Europe. In retrospect, it transpires that his strong criticism of NATO was intended to refocus attention on Alliance missions and capabilities.
Two main factors can enable Trump to revive the Alliance: his warnings about NATO’s future and his selection of a strong security team. Trump’s main indignation was directed at European governments who consistently fail to allocate 2% of GDP for their national defense despite NATO’s common requirements. Trump threatened to cut American support if these targets were not met, claiming that the American taxpayer should not be primarily responsible for defending a wealthy Europe.
Although several former US leaders have expressed their frustration with Europe’s inadequate defense spending, it appears that threats are more effective than pleas. Trump’s words are having an impact already with several capitals pledging to boost their spending over the coming years and improving their fighting capabilities.
Trump’s commitment to strengthening NATO is even more evident in the selection of his security team. In particular, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is a staunch supporter of the Alliance, which he views as indispensible for defending America’s national interests. He stated unambiguously at the Munich security conference that the bond between the US and NATO is a critical component in regional and global security.
Mattis’ visit to Brussels for NATO’s defense ministerial meeting in February was an important occasion to reaffirm US commitments but also to push for NATO’s internal reform to deal with contemporary threats. Mattis and the Pentagon understand that the Russian threat to Europe is growing and that NATO also needs to be more effective in combating terrorist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Vice President Mike Pence reinforced Mattis’ pro-NATO position during his recent visit to Europe. Moreover, the replacement of the Russia-friendly National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn with General H. R. McMaster demonstrated that a more traditional Atlanticism would prevail in Washington. McMaster like Mattis has no illusions about Russia and will counter Kremlin objectives to dismantle NATO and reduce American influence in Europe.
Under the George W. Bush administration, NATO allies were focused on expeditionary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under Barack Obama NATO was neglected and Europe’s defense was downgraded until Russia’s attack on Ukraine in early 2014 and growing fears among NATO’s front line states over Moscow’s revisionist ambitions. Under the Trump administration there is an opportunity to modernize and strengthen NATO with the commitment of an increasing number of Allies.
Trump’s security policy will be largely defined by his handling of ISIS, the Middle East, and Russia’s assertiveness. In each of these arenas NATO has a role to play even before any discussions are undertaken or agreements made with Moscow. Indeed, Trump should learn lessons from Obama’s naïve expectations about “resets” with the Kremlin. As Mattis stated at the Munich security conference America and NATO need to negotiate with Russia from a position of strength.
Trump should learn from Obama’s mistakes and embrace a U.S. leadership role in Europe early in his term. This should also include a repositioning of American military deployments. Since the end of World War Two, German governments have taken US defense of the country for granted. The time is fast approaching to move some of NATO’s major installations from Germany to the new members in order to more effectively protect NATO’s eastern flank and deter Kremlin aggression. This should also include repositioning a larger share of the 60,000 US troops currently stationed in western Europe.
Moscow’s view of Trump has swung from euphoria to trepidation since he moved into the White House. Putin’s officials increasingly compare him to President Ronald Reagan, in seeking superiority over Russia and undercutting Moscow’s claims to global stature. For instance, they assert that Trump’s declared aim of putting the U.S. nuclear arsenal “at the top of the pack” risked triggering a new arms race between Washington and Moscow. Trump has proclaimed that he will reverse the decline in US nuclear weapons and dismisses treaties with Russia as “bad deals” for Washington.
With regard to NATO, instead of dismantling the Alliance as Moscow had hoped, Trump looks poised to rebuild and rejuvenate NATO, to substantially increase US defense spending, and to work more closely with European allies that are most committed to American goals. While Reagan’s military posture contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the ultimate fear in Moscow is that Trump’s planned military buildup could contribute to dismantling the Russian Federation.