NATO allies are talking about breaking away from the US, but Trump isn't their only problem

Sean Gallup/Getty ImagessGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel, far left, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, third from left, and President Donald Trump, at the 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels, July 11, 2018.
  • President Donald Trump keeps blasting NATO over what he sees as the alliance members’ shortcomings.
  • His pressure appears to have led to renewed calls among NATO members for more emphasis on domestic defence capacity, rather than reliance on the US.
  • These deepen existing fault lines within NATO, and the bloc’s future is not certain.

President Donald Trump began this week’s NATO summit with more broadsides against US allies, tarring Germany as “totally controlled by Russia” and again exhorting members to increase domestic defence spending to “2% of GDP IMMEDIATELY, not by 2025,” misstating the non-legally-binding guideline to reach that spending level by 2024.

NATO leaders were braced for more attacks by Trump, who has laid into member states for various perceived shortcomings since taking office – most frequently for what he sees as insufficient defence spending.

Trump’s approach to the summit is unlikely to change the minds of European leaders who have called on their governments and alliance partners to adapt to a changing world order – in large part by augmenting their domestic defence industries.

‘You have a dry piece of land’

In June, Jorge Domecq, the Spanish head of the European Defence Agency, said countries on the continent needed to work toward greater “strategic autonomy” by weaning themselves off US-made weaponry.

“Does strategic autonomy mean less business in one direction? Perhaps,” he said at a defence trade show in Paris, according to Defence News. “But do we want to continue a business relationship across the Atlantic which is undoubtedly unbalanced but unhealthy in terms of the defence capability of Europe?”

He said that if European countries were to develop their own military capabilities, they needed to stop buying advanced US weapons systems that were beyond the ability of their own defence industries to maintain.

“If you have capabilities for which you don’t have the industrial capacity to sustain them, and you have to ask the neighbour to give you the hose each time you want to water the plants, you don’t have a garden,” he said. “You have a dry piece of land.”

European defence contractors, who have a vested interest in seeing more defence spending, have expressed similar thinking.

“Europe should buy weapon systems in Europe, developed and manufactured in Europe, to make sure that if something happens they are capable in having the right answers for the threat,” Frank Haun, chief of the German combat vehicles specialist Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, told Defence News last month.

At least one country is making legislative changes to facilitate such activity.

In mid-June, the parliament in Estonia – which plans a defence-spending increase amid high concern about its eastern neighbour, Russia – changed legislation to provide “a legal framework for Estonian companies to begin to manufacture, maintain, import, and export military weapons, ammunition, munitions and combat vehicles.”

That move opens a path for growth of a domestic defence industry and the eventual export of Estonian-made weaponry.

“The absence of a right to handle weapons and ammunition has long been a serious concern for Estonia’s defence industry” and hindered its growth, Defence Minister Juri Luik said.

European interest in boosting domestic defence industries predates Trump and his fusillades, but renewed focus on building that capacity doesn’t mean it’s gotten easier to achieve.

“The Europeans have wanted to maintain some sort of an autonomous defence industry partly just for the sake of having an option in the future, but partly because there are a lot of jobs attached to it,” Barry Posen, a political-science professor at MIT, where he directs the Security Studies program, said on a Defence Priorities conference call this week.

It’s likely Trump’s tough talk “has caused a little bit of a renaissance in the European belief they have to keep the defence industry alive,” Posen added. “But they run up against real problems when they go to buy defence material.”

A variety of interests have to be accommodated by such programs, work has to be spread across European countries, and manufacturing has to be done in a way that maximizes employment, Posen said. “So some of these European cooperative projects have not yielded particularly great weapons systems.”

‘The world order we were used to … no longer exists’

Trump’s pressure on NATO comes as the alliance grapples with its own divides. The organisation has had reorient itself in the decades since the Cold War, the conflict it was formed to address.

Member states have arrived at divergent views on their respective national-security challenges.

A survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that members of the European Union – which does not totally overlap with NATO membership – viewed Russia as the second-biggest threat to Europe.

But within the EU, perspectives on Russia varied greatly. Seven countries viewed it as their biggest threat, and five members, mostly from southern Europe, saw it as almost no threat at all.

Perhaps more notably, views on the US are shifting. Respondents from five EU members told the ECFR that the US was “somehow a threat” or even a “moderate threat.” The ECFR believes three more members are likely to adopt that view over the next decade.

Merkel and PutinGuido Bergmann/Bundesregierung-Pool via Getty ImagesMerkel with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Such differences of opinion suggest deciding on a shared focus will be challenging for NATO.

Speaking “collectively of the national interests or the common interests of Europe at this point” is challenging, said Michael Desch, director of Notre Dame’s international security center, on the same conference call.

“It seems to me that in addition to a putative threat from Russia, there are just a whole host of other issues that are pulling the various European powers and European NATO members in a lot of different directions,” Desch added.

German leaders are already calling for Europe to prepare for a world where the US is not always a like-minded partner.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in June that Europeans “need a balanced partnership with the US … where we as Europeans act as a conscious counterweight when the US oversteps red lines.”

“Donald Trump’s egotistical politics of ‘America First,’ Russia’s attacks on international law and state sovereignty, the expansion of gigantic China: The world order we were used to – it no longer exists,” Maas said.

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