For many in Washington and Europe’s major capitals, Donald Trump’s attendance at the two-day NATO summit now under way in Brussels is being watched with deep apprehension, given his widely voiced complaints over NATO members’ alleged failure to pay their fair share of combined expenses and his seeming indifference to the alliance’s presumed role as the bedrock of US defense policy. Trump renewed his recriminations of NATO laggards upon arriving in Brussels, saying, “The United States is spending far too much and other countries are not paying enough.”
With a Trump-Putin encounter coming a few days later, many are arguing that failure to bolster NATO’s resolve could give Putin the opening he needs to wrest concessions from Trump. A broad cross section of political leaders, including many prominent Democrats, therefore called on Trump to be nice to our NATO partners, reaffirm America’s ties to the alliance, and draw on this collective spirit to pummel Putin when the two heads of state meet in Helsinki. From the mass media, then, we see only two potential roles for Trump at NATO: as spoiler or as savior. But are these the only options we can envision?
Until now, most of the conversation regarding Trump’s visit has focused on the military spending of NATO members, with very little devoted to NATO’s actual mission. Trump insists that every alliance member commit at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product to defense—a target currently met by only eight of NATO’s 29 members: the United States, Britain, Greece, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. The fact that most member states—including such heavyweights as France and Germany—have not reached that level has led him to bad-mouth the alliance, claiming that its members are freeloading on US taxpayers. “I’ll tell NATO: ‘You’ve got to start paying your bills,’” Trump had declared at a recent rally in Montana, where he complained that Americans were “the schmucks that are paying for the whole thing.”
NATO’s numerous defenders in Washington and elsewhere claim that other members are on track to reach the 2 percent target and that the Europeans contribute to alliance security in other ways, for example by hosting US and allied forces on their territory. Some members have contributed to peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and US-led missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of this has satisfied Trump, who seems obsessed with the (essentially meaningless) 2 percent spending level. “Over the last year, about $40 billion more has been given by other countries to help NATO,” Trump told reporters in Brussels, “but that’s not nearly enough.”
Trump also focused particular ire on Germany, Europe’s leading economy and a favorite White House target on trade issues. The president appears particularly incensed that Germany continues to import natural gas from Russia (so as to reduce its reliance on coal and nuclear power), while holding the line on sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “I think it’s very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia,” he said in Brussels, while “we’re protecting Germany.”
In all of this, however, very little is being said, by any party to this debate, about NATO’s actual role in the current world. Most such conversations begin with the assertion that, as stated by Madeleine Albright and 15 former foreign ministers in a July 9 letter to Trump, “Today, NATO is the world’s most successful military alliance.” And, as noted by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a July 8 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, “Together, the alliance’s 29 countries represent half the world’s economic and military might.”
But what is all this power being used for? Aside from support for those failed US-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, NATO’s main day-to-day activity in recent years has been to confront and confine a newly resurgent Russia in Eastern Europe. At a previous summit, held in Wales in September 2014 (just a few months after Russia annexed Crimea), NATO leaders adopted a “Readiness Action Plan” intended to beef up alliance defenses on its eastern periphery and take other steps intended to counter Russian moves in the region. The plan’s aim, the summit communiqué stated, is to reassure NATO’s front-line members “that our Allied forces maintain the adequate readiness and coherence needed to conduct NATO’s full range of missions, including deterring aggression against NATO Allies and demonstrating preparedness to defend NATO territory.”
At a subsequent summit, in Warsaw in July 2016, NATO leaders agreed to take this plan further, by stationing, on a rotating basis (to deflect any Russian claim that it was creating “permanent” bases), a reinforced combat battalion plus supporting units in each of the Baltic republics plus Poland. Those battalions are now being deployed, sparking Russian cries of “destabilizing” moves by NATO on its borders and prompting the movement of additional Russian forces into the region.
All these moves have increased tensions in the region and led to periodic close encounters between NATO and Russian ships and planes operating in the tightly constrained air- and sea-spaces around the Baltic Sea. Even worse, they have been accompanied by talk in the West of increased Russian reliance on nuclear weapons to compensate for the increased NATO military presence on Russia’s borders, and corresponding calls on the United States to bolster its own nuclear arsenal in the face of those alleged Russian threats. This stance became official US policy in February, when the Trump administration released its Nuclear Posture Review, authorizing the development and deployment of so-called “low-yield” nuclear weapons to deter Russia from using similar munitions in Europe or, if necessary, retaliate for any such use with equivalent attacks. (Needless to say, most nuclear analysts contend that any use of nuclear weapons by a major power, even those deemed “low-yield,” is likely to spark retaliation with ordinary, city-busting weapons, making the very concept ludicrous.)
If Pentagon officials and NATO’s other boosters would have their way, the summit in Brussels would be devoted to those issues, not the matter of military-spending levels or other (to them) distractions. Indeed, going into the summit, the alliance’s senior military officials were discussing how they could further build up NATO’s capabilities along the eastern front and better counter any improvements in Russian weaponry. Given that Moscow can be expected to compensate for any increase in NATO’s front-line capabilities, we appear headed for a dangerous arms race on Europe’s east-west border—not unlike the one experienced at the height of the Cold War.
This being the case, what we really need from Trump and other senior officials at the Brussels summit is a clear-headed reconsideration of NATO’s current strategy, with its emphasis on confronting Russia at every point from northern Scandinavia and the Baltic region to the Balkans, the Black Sea, and the Caucasus. This does not mean acquiescing to provocative moves by the Russians, but rather asking whether diplomacy, conflict-avoidance measures, and arms control are being given the priority they deserve. A less confrontational stance by NATO—including an announcement that it will not carry out provocative moves of its own, such as expanding membership to Ukraine or Georgia—could eliminate the need for spending increases or costly new weapons systems—nuclear or otherwise.
NATO can play a useful role in Europe, helping to defuse intra-Western tensions and buttressing human rights at a time of rising nationalism and xenophobia. If its mission were reconfigured for today’s needs, the alliance could become a key foundation for European peace and stability. But for that to happen, NATO would have to abandon its grandiose anti-Russian mandate and its continuing reliance on nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, these are not the kinds of issues Trump will raise at the summit.