Trump’s Shadow Hangs Over NATO
A year since Trump entered office, European allies are relieved the alliance is still standing, but U.S. leadership remains in doubt.
When generals and diplomats gather for Europe’s most important security conference in Munich next month, President Donald Trump will not be in the room. But the U.S. president will cast a long shadow over the annual event, as his provocative comments about the NATO alliance have shaken the confidence of America’s partners across the Atlantic.
Doubts about Washington’s leadership of NATO are expected to dominate the Feb. 16-18 Munich Security Conference, with European strategists weighing what to make of the contradictory messages coming from the White House.
Immediately after Trump’s election in November 2016, European governments braced for a nightmare scenario, fearing the “America First” president would make good on his talk of cozying up to Russia and abandoning NATO’s central tenet of collective defense. But more than a year later, their worst fears have yet to be realized.
Even as Trump’s words roiled the waters, the NATO alliance is still standing. Below the surface, U.S. military brass and Trump’s deputies are working with their European counterparts to try to deter Russia, current and former U.S. and European officials say.
Despite his rhetoric, Trump’s administration has taken concrete steps to bolster the alliance and counter Moscow, approving weapons sales to help Ukraine take on pro-Russian separatists and deploying more American tanks to NATO’s eastern flank.
For NATO allies, the money, the military hardware, and the drills are all reassuring. But an alliance is not just about weapons and budgets. And the president’s tone and words have planted serious doubts about whether the United States will deliver in a crisis, Western officials say.
“We still work well with our American counterparts inside NATO,” one senior European military officer told Foreign Policy. “But when these things are said, it’s a problem. It creates this uncertainty.”
For European allies, their view is that “it isn’t as bad as we thought it would be,” said Julianne Smith, who served as deputy national security advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden.
But she added: “While some allies are breathing a sigh of relief, there’s still some heartburn or, at the very least, some uncertainty about where we’re going.”
The Europeans are pinning their hopes on more than six decades of close military ties. And they are looking to Trump’s team, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, to serve as guardians of the alliance.
At a Jan. 15 ceremony in Brussels where German officials presented a medal to Dunford, that message came through loud and clear, though no one uttered Trump’s name.
Dunford diplomatically suggested long-established military ties could provide a counterweight to the political friction between Washington and Europe: “I think the military-to-military relationship keeps us on the straight and narrow even when we have occasional disagreements.”
In a move that reassured European governments, the Trump administration has opted to increase funding for more U.S. troops and hardware in Eastern Europe and to bolster training and drills with NATO partners. As part of the European Deterrence Initiative, the Defense Department plans to spend $4.8 billion in 2018, an increase of $1.4 billion over fiscal year 2017.
And despite Trump’s reluctance to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin or to call out Moscow over its meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, his administration shuttered Russian consulates suspected of espionage, boosted sanctions on Russia (though with considerable congressional strong-arming), and gave the green light to supply Ukraine’s government with anti-tank weapons — a move Trump’s predecessor rejected as too risky.
“It would be a bizarre thing to deny that some of the things candidate Trump said raised eyebrows,” said one European diplomat. “But actually it’s been pretty clear from the day the administration as a whole took power that commitment in NATO is in some senses almost increasing.”
Behind these decisions, with backing from Mattis and Dunford, is an administration team stacked with “Atlanticists” and Russia hawks: Wess Mitchell, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs; Kurt Volker, the special envoy on Ukraine; Thomas Goffus, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy; and senior National Security Council staffers including Richard Hooker and Fiona Hill.
“The NSC staff spends a lot of time fighting back the ‘alt-right’ residue on Trump’s Europe policy,” said a former senior Pentagon official who served under George W. Bush’s administration.
But none of these officials can insulate NATO from Trump.
Trump repeatedly called NATO “obsolete” as a presidential candidate and refused to fully endorse Article 5, which affirms the alliance’s mutual defense principle, until his second trip to Europe in July. The low point, European officials say, was his visit to Brussels in May in which he chided allies publicly for freeloading and then gave them an off-script tongue-lashing in a closed-door dinner that was described as a “train wreck.”
Trump has focused almost exclusively on the failure of most of the member states to meet a NATO target for defense spending at 2 percent of GDP. Only five of NATO’s 29 members — the United States, Britain, Estonia, Greece, and Poland — meet that benchmark, but experts insist that the importance of the number is overstated.
Trump’s transactional approach has unsettled NATO allies, reinforcing questions about whether the president would back up the alliance when it counted.
“I have heard increasingly from Europeans at the very highest levels that any discussion in NATO on any issue immediately turns into a 2 percent discussion,” said Ivo Daalder, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
As a result, the United States has so far failed to play its customary leading role at alliance headquarters in Brussels under Trump’s tenure, former officials say. Apart from renewing its support for initiatives set out under Barack Obama’s tenure, the Trump administration has yet to generate new ideas for the alliance or shape discussions among political envoys at the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s decision-making body.
“U.S. leadership at the [North Atlantic Council] is almost nonexistent,” said Jim Townsend, a former senior Defense Department official who handled European and NATO policy. “The normal engine of developing NATO policy is not working.”
While the alliance has sought to bolster its presence in Eastern Europe and plans to create new logistics and maritime commands, NATO members are still lagging behind when it comes to having forces and equipment ready to deploy at a moment’s notice, Townsend said.
“Right now, we’re deterring on fumes.”
Trump’s lack of enthusiasm for the alliance has provided ammunition to NATO skeptics across the Atlantic, who have renewed calls for Europe to take charge of its defense without depending solely on the United States. And questions about U.S. commitment have also encouraged the idea that European countries should explore a more accommodating stance toward Russia.
“Once you start placing doubts on the reliability of the security guarantee of the most important ally, you start to hedge,” Daalder said.
Apart from his stance on NATO, Trump has triggered broader doubts about the transatlantic relationship because of his hostile anti-EU rhetoric and his protectionist policies on trade. The European Union is now pursuing its own global trade agenda — including a new deal with Japan — as the United States appears ready to abandon its traditional role as the chief guarantor of an open market system.
As much as Mattis and military commanders seek to shore up the transatlantic bond, Trump could cause lasting damage to the alliance, undermining trust built up over decades, current and former Western officials say.
“The transatlantic relationship may be scarred for a long time to come,” said Alexander Vershbow, the former NATO deputy secretary-general and veteran U.S. diplomat.
“For Europe,” he said, “America will now always be the country that elected Donald Trump.”
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin