By Patrick BAHZAD
Very shortly, Donald Trump will be sworn into office as the 45th President of the United States. By all accounts, his Inauguration will resemble no other in recent history. The country is deeply divided and the gap between the pro- and anti-Trump will be very visible, even today, when the whole country should regroup around its new elected leader. To a European audience however, Donald Trump's recent comments about NATO being "obsolete" and "not dealing with terrorism" matter much more than the internal dissent in the US itself. Those statements have created a spark of outrage across NATO members and triggered a salvo of reactions pointing to POTUS' ignorance about NATO's record in both regards. While Mr. Trump's statements are definitely debatable, there is lots to be said about his critics as well. Here are a few thoughts on the topic.
The latest controversy touches on two core issues: 1) NATO's commitment to defending its members and 2) NATO's record when it comes to dealing with terrorism in general, and global terror organisations in particular. Both issues are closely linked to highly volatile situations: the new "cold war" with Russia on the one hand, and the fight against IS (or AQ) on the other.
Remember what NATO was meant for ?
NATO itself was created in 1949 as a system of collective defence aimed basically at defending Western Europe (and North America) against the Soviets first, and more broadly against the Warsaw Pact after 1955. Large scale engagements in faraway lands were never supposed to be part of NATO's core business, which is one of the reasons some NATO members – Germany in particular – had a hard time adjusting to the concept of "out of area" missions, after the end of the Cold War. While there is no doubt as to NATO's essential contribution to peace and stability in Western Europe, NATO itself was not the only decisive factor in this achievement.
What has kept us safe from war is not so much the existence of the Alliance as the inherent risk of "mutually assured destruction" that any conflict between East and West could have morphed into. There has also been a dynamic at work in Western Europe , based on the realization that war as a means of achieving political gains was no longer an option. Without such fundamental awareness, it is difficult to imagine NATO could have united countries that had just emerged from the most devastating war the continent had witnessed since the 30 Years War. After the unravelling of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact however, the main "raison d'être" of NATO disappeared and the Alliance should have undergone major restructuring, yet it maintained its "business as usual" stance.
From that point of view, Donald Trump's statements are not that far off the mark. Carrying on as if nothing had happened meant that the US basically continued to provide most of European members with military security, thus enabling these countries to spend much less on defence. The financial burden of NATO lay mostly on US shoulders, but both the US and the Europeans were pretty happy with this unequal burden sharing. The US provided the security and thus maintained their influence over the continent, the Europeans spent more money on social policies and remained very much a junior partner in the Alliance.
The numbers' game
To the businessman Donald Trump, this deal is no longer a good one. He has a point there, and many European countries should have come to their senses a long time ago. The upside of the political panic that has now taken hold of a number of European capitals is that the current reality check may trigger a consistent and thorough reshuffling of defence budgets and policies across the continent. An increase in global expenditure is not necessarily on the menu, although some members do need to do more and better, but streamlining the many redundant programs and procedures among European countries would already be a good start.
Looking at numbers alone, it appears that NATO's five biggest European spenders, with a population roughly the same as the US, spend around 190 billion dollars annually on defence. This may equate to only 33 % of US spending, but taken together, it still represents the second largest defence budget in the world. It is three times the Russian budget and 40 billion dollars more than what the Chinese spend. What is missing here is not so much the money but a consistent, collective policy about means and ends. This is probably where a "business" centred approach could help or at least point the finger at the most blatant weaknesses.
With no existential threat looming around the corner, the Europeans just dropped the ball in the 1990s. Every country had its own procurement policies, armed forces structure and defence policies. NATO was something they were formally part of, but it was the Americans who provided the goods when push came to shove. Even the new Eastern European members, allegedly on the frontlines of the new "cold war" with Russia, don't spend that much on defence. In the Baltics, Estonia is the only country that meets the informal 2% of GDP mark.
BUt this is also where Trump's statements about "fulfilling obligations" is not exactly relevant. There are limits to applying accounting standards only in order to determine who is doing enough or not. By that rationale, Trump should be praising little Greece, the biggest European NATO spender in relatives terms (2,6% of GDP). Greece's concerns however are not so much their contribution to NATO's defence but rather making sure they could stand up to their powerful neighbour and also NATO-member Turkey, another big spender (2.1% of GDP), but an ally who has not proven very reliable of late.
NATO's Article V
Regardless of those numbers, there are many reasonable people in Europe who would agree that Trump is "onto something". NATO is not merely a defensive alliance anymore, but a military organisation with a global reach, engaging in a number of operations around the world that have nothing to do with defence. Meanwhile, the situation has changed on the European home front, and the Alliance is lagging behind, after it failed already to adapt to the post-cold war world. This needs to be addressed and we should see Donald Trump's statements as a chance to fix this.
There is another part of his statements that is much more contentious however. As a system of collective defence, NATO is built around the notion that all member States would come to the rescue in case one of them is attacked. This is basically what is stated in article V of the North Atlantic Treaty. Arguably, article V does not provide for automatic declaration of war by all members. Each one is simply compelled to provide the assistance it deems necessary in case of an attack. But questioning this principle, or raising doubts about US commitment to honour its word, carries serious risk. It was an ill-advised statement to make, based on a misguided accounting principle that only grasps part of the geopolitical reality. The upside is that it has caused such a stir that it will force some European partners into reconsidering their defence policy and waking up to their part of the "deal".
Now of course, we may argue in this regard about NATO's past decision to expand into Central and Eastern Europe. The fact remains nonetheless that the Baltic States, or Poland for that matter, are full members and should enjoy the protection they are entitled to. Whether this needs to be underlined by sending a few hundred troops into the area, patrolling their skies and preparing local forces for insurgency warfare against an unlikely Russian attack is a different matter. Troops can be moved out anyway, if and when a satisfactory political settlement is reached with the Russians. Therefore, the question is more about the political willingness (on both sides) to reach such a settlement. No doubt though, there are people – not just in Moscow – who will do their best to prevent such a deal from happening.
In that regard, there is probably more to come from those D.C. armchair strategists who promoted the idea of Ukrainian NATO membership. But Ukraine – a parody of a country ever since its independence – is much too hot to be handled safely, curtesy of the same armchair strategists who pushed the whole area on the brink of open war. A number of European countries are perfectly aware of this high volatility and have not forgotten about the chain of events that led to World War I. Giving Ukraine the guarantees of NATO protection is a recipe for disaster, as this could potentially encourage the "die hard" anti-Russian faction in Kiev to go ahead with a more confrontational attitude.
The Europeans have agreed to the current sanction regime against Moscow, but they will not allow Ukraine to be part of NATO, not now, and probably not ever. At the Bucharest summit in 2008, there already was serious push back from major European powers against a Washington fostered project of Ukrainian membership, and there will be even more if the topic is put on the table again. Ukraine is not exactly on its own militarily, but it is not part of the Alliance, and it will have to rely on individual States' help if it wants to carry on its protracted war against Eastern Ukrainian militias backed by the Russians.
The worst part in this mess is that Ukraine has now become a financial liability to the West and it will take years as well as massive cash inflow to turn this country around. And not even then is the outcome guaranteed. Surely, the Russians have now lost any chance at attracting Ukraine into their big Eurasian project, but it is the US and the EU which now own the Ukrainian can of worms, at least from a financial and economic point of view. A ludicrous lose-lose outcome, with no winners in sight. Maybe – hopefully – Donald Trump's comments were also aimed at those among the US political establishment who would like nothing better than further escalating the situation. If so, he certainly sent a stern reminder to these people that he will not be dragged into a foreign policy adventure like some of his predecessors did.
NATO's role in fighting terrorism
The other point Trump touched on was NATO's record in the fight against terrorism and on this issue, there is even more confusion. A number of op-eds and essays have been published in recent days, arguing that Trump has no clue and that he should read a history book to get the facts right. Possibly, but then again so should the authors of these pieces. As a military organisation, NATO as such has not carried out any operation in the fight against IS or Al-Qaeda. Some will say "wrong, look at Afghanistan and ISAF". Well, sure, why not. Things are pretty simple …
ISAF was established under UN resolution 1386 and it was not designed as a NATO operation at the time of its inception. Initially, ISAF's goal was to provide security around Kabul and NATO only took over because the mission was in such a state of disarray it had to be salvaged somehow. After NATO stepped in to take the lead, the mission was considerably extended beyond Kabul and an increasing number of nations contributed to it. ISAF however was never intended at doing counter-terrorism, although it had a combat role and took part in counter-insurgency operations, notably during the unsuccessful Afghan surge.
So unless anyone is arguing that counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency are one and the same thing, NATO as a military organisation never did anything against transnational terror groups like the "Islamic State" or Al Qaeda. To be fair however, this is not NATO's or its European members fault. After 9/11, when the US invoked NATO's article V, America's allies offered military assistance, but they were rebuffed and side-lined by Bush Jr.'s administration which had other plans in mind already. Who needs NATO when you got the world's most powerful military ready to go ? It was the Bush administration that made NATO irrelevant and obsolete at that point, even though the attack on the US homeland was a clear cut case for triggering article V and mobilizing NATO's forces.
As for the "mission accomplished" adventure of Iraq, a small number of European NATO members got involved – the UK obviously, but also Italy, Spain, Denmark and Poland to various degrees – but not the Alliance as such. The only instances where NATO as a whole operated in foreign lands had nothing to do with terrorism, and even less with collective defence of its members. The Kosovo War (1998-1999) and the "No Fly Zone" over Libya (2011) obviously come to mind. Both were mostly airstrike campaigns. Although successful militarily, both operations had very mixed results from a political point of view.
Trump may not be an experienced strategist or political leader. If he manages however to push NATO into fixing its many shortcomings and focusing on genuine threats, that is not only those that have been mostly fabricated by a bunch of lunatics with an agenda, he will have done more for NATO's relevance and future than the three previous administrations put together.