Can NATO recover from Trump?
On February 17, Nato defence ministers gathered for a two-day teleconference to discuss the future of the transatlantic alliance. It was not a summit involving leaders of member states but nevertheless attracted unusual attention because it was the first high-level meeting since President Joe Biden replaced Donald Trump in the White House.
From its sprawling Brussels headquarters, the Norwegian secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg laid out plans to modernise Nato after four years of tensions with Washington and to deal with the increasingly assertive posture of Russia, as an adversary – if not a formal enemy. Another significant challenge is the rise of China. Others include the devastating global impact of the covid pandemic and climate change.
Biden’s defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, began by trying to improve US relationships. It was not an easy task because of the damage done by Trump’s hostility to the alliance. The Democrat’s commitment to multilateralism and promoting transatlantic ties is the single most positive aspect of the changing of the guard in Washington.
Other participants in the virtual call expressed relief at Austin’s striking change of tone about Nato’s enduring relevance, especially his reaffirmation of Article 5, the founding treaty provision that proclaims an attack on one ally to be an attack on all.
Trump, who was widely seen as the most anti-European American president since 1945, repeatedly confronted Nato members with demands that they spend more on defence and irritated fellow leaders by repeatedly making unilateral decisions – made without consulting them - and expecting them to agree.
Last June Biden said of his Republican rival: "If I lose and he gets elected, you will remember the things that I said will turn out to be right… and that is, if he gets elected, there will be no Nato.” Earlier he accused Trump of treating Nato “like a protection racket.” He also released a video of leaders chuckling at Trump, saying that the “world is laughing at the president.”
One of the consequences was that in 2019, Emmanuel Macron, the French President, said in an interview that Nato was “experiencing brain death” when alliance member Turkey launched an offensive against US-backed rebels in Syria, after Trump authorised Recep Tayipp Erdogan to go ahead in a private conversation.
Nato was created in 1949 for the collective defence of its members, linking the security of the US with its European allies against the Soviet Union. It witnessed the end of communism, defeating the Soviet bloc without firing a shot. It went to war for the first time in the Balkans in the 1990s. It then set out on a new path - so-called "out of area" operations beyond Nato's frontiers, notably operations in Afghanistan and the wider war against terror.
Last week’s defence ministers’ meeting announced a significant increase in military support for the Iraqi army in combatting Isis but postponed a long-awaited decision about Nato forces in Afghanistan – both issues highlighting its expanding role in recent years.
Countering Russia remains Nato’s primary challenge. Tensions rose with Moscow after Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, but Russia has come under pressure to reveal details of its novichok chemical weapons programme after Nato demanded an International investigation into the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
In the wake of recent protests across the country over the imprisonment of Navalny, and his accusation that Putin owned a £1 billion private palace on the Black Sea (the president denied that claim), the FSB security agency confirmed it had enforced a no-fly zone over the site and said the restrictions were imposed to protect the coast from “Nato spies.”
Stoltenberg also raised the vexed question of persuading the alliance’s 30 members to spend more nationally on defence. The US currently pays for around 70% of Nato’s budget – but it is of course a wealthy global power. That became the dominant issue in the Trump period, with the president singling out “delinquent” Germany (Europe’s largest economy) and complaining that “we don’t want to be suckers any more.” Trump administration officials repeated the Obama-era target of 2 per cent of GDP as the “gold standard” for defence spending by 2024, though that pre-dated the economic consequences of the pandemic.
The secretary-general warned that the "geopolitical” effects of covid could be significant if financial difficulties made "some allies more vulnerable for situations where critical infrastructure can be sold out." It was obvious that Stoltenberg was talking about China after recent warnings that Nato members need to more careful in dealing with Beijing, especially in allowing it to acquire advanced technology as well as container terminals in European ports from Piraeus, Zeebruge, Valencia and Bilbao.
Stoltenberg returned to the issue more explicitly at the Munich Security Conference days later when he described “the rise of China (as) a defining issue for the transatlantic community, with potential consequences for our security, our prosperity and our way of life.”
It was all a vivid reminder of how, in these fast-changing and uncertain times, that nothing can be taken for granted – not even the continued and effective existence of the most successful alliance in modern history.
IAN BLACK levant