The Trump Effect: One Path To A New NATO
The alliance must overcome three hurdles to revitalize trust and the transatlantic relationship, former senior NATO officials write.
The upcoming NATO Leaders’ Meeting in Brussels on May 25 will be the first major gathering between President Donald Trump and fellow NATO allies. Even before his inauguration, Trump shook the foundations of NATO more than any of his predecessors. Of greater concern than his argument that NATO was “obsolete” was his apparent readiness to make conditional the holiest of holies, the U.S. commitment under Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty to come to the defense of any ally that comes under attack. Trump suggested that would depend on whether the ally in question had “fulfilled [its financial] obligations to us.”
As Thursday’s meeting approaches, the lingering doubts the new president has created about the U.S. commitment to its oldest military alliance need to be addressed through a concrete renewal of vows with Europe. The concern is whether European leaders will be willing and capable of striking a new transatlantic bargain with such a controversial leader as Trump, or of generating the resources and political will needed to do so.
There are three hurdles for revitalizing trust and the transatlantic relationship: the issue of burden sharing and defense spending; Trump’s commitment to European security; and NATO’s role in anti-terrorism efforts.
First, NATO allies must develop detailed defense spending plans, including concrete milestones for meeting the goal of spending 2 percent of their GDPs on defense. To continue the European and Canadian upward trajectory of defense spending, allies should build national ‘interim’ plans over a number of years to spread defense investments.
Allies also should deliver a “NATO-2020” investment plan that would combine their national investment plans into a commitment to close at least half the existing defense spending gap that separates alliance members by the end of the year 2020. Putting larger allies such as Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Canada on a firm pathway toward 2 percent can make a real difference in overall non-US defense spending.
NATO also needs an enforcement mechanism to hold allies accountable to their commitment. NATO’s defense planning process creates little accountability at the highest political level. To overcome this, NATO’s role should shift from one of defense accountant (counting spending and available resources) to one of a defense watchdog (flagging gaps and insufficiencies in national defense budgets). Short of an enforcement mechanism, collective accountability through naming and shaming is the next best thing.
To overcome the second hurdle, the United States should start by reconfirming its commitments to European security. The Trump administration should confirm the commitments the United States made at the 2014 Wales Summit and 2016 Warsaw Summit to bolstering defense and deterrence. This will go a long way to assuring nervous allies. The U.S. should build on delivering Enhanced Forward Presence, or eFP, and its role as lead nation in the multinational battalion in Poland, by providing one additional armored brigade combat team on a national basis, as well as providing key enablers and equipment to facilitate other allied troop deployments.
Additionally, the United States should place its European Deterrence Initiative funding in the base U.S. defense budget. Currently, the European Deterrence Initiative funding for US deployments requires renewal every year. Embedding the funding in the regular defense budget will send an important signal of a more predictable and enduring U.S. commitment to European security post-Crimea.
U.S. and European allies also should build a proactive cyber defense policy, respond to Russia’ build-up of anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, capabilities, commit to enhanced maritime capabilities, and update NATO’s nuclear posture. So that NATO can respond adequately to cyberattacks, the Alliance should develop the necessary arrangements, doctrine, and even declaratory posture. The Alliance must go beyond its Warsaw Summit decision to classify cyber as a military domain and beyond focusing on protecting its own networks, to build the Alliance’s capacity to make quick and unified decisions in the face of a major cyber crisis.
Russia’s only exclave in Europe, Kaliningrad, hosts sophisticated air defense systems, ballistic missiles, and radar systems. To counter the Russian threat, allies must invest more in air and missile defense, precision strike, and anti-submarine warfare capabilities to deter, and if necessary, counter Russia’s activation of its A2/AD capabilities. At the same time, allies need to maintain and strengthen expeditionary capabilities so that NATO remains equipped to fight terrorism and manage crises beyond its borders.
Allies will also need to commit more assets to the standing NATO maritime groups to ensure that NATO maintains freedom of navigation and access in the North Atlantic. To close worrying gaps in alliance capabilities and expertise, allies must rebuild their maritime know-how, including in submarine warfare, and high-end maritime capabilities if they are to defend in strategically important areas, such as the GIUK Gap.
Further, a clear declaratory posture is needed to address the integration of conventional and nuclear options in Russian nuclear strategy. While not mirroring the Russian continuum from conventional to strategic forces, NATO’s nuclear planning and exercising should be better integrated into overall planning efforts.
In overcoming the third and final hurdle of counterterrorism, NATO should play a more robust role in training local forces – with boots on the ground – to help partner countries rebuild their own forces. The alliance should initiate large training missions in crisis spots like Iraq and Libya, based on the model of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. Based on past experience, training of local forces needs to be sustained for a decade or longer to deliver results. By sharing the cost and spreading the contributions among different allies in an integrated way, NATO has proven capacity to sustain training efforts in the Middle East for the long haul.
To fund these efforts, allies should agree on a common training fund of up to $1 billion. This would help address the burden-sharing issue raised by U.S. administrations and give NATO more resources to play a more active role in training local forces and fighting terrorism.
Overall, NATO also needs to provide more intelligence and surveillance support to allied counterterrorism efforts in Syria, Iraq, and the Sahel more broadly. NATO is better equipped than at any time in its history to process, fuse, and provide intelligence and surveillance, and it operates a broad range of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, capabilities. The quality of the intelligence remains limited to what the main intelligence providers, mostly the United States, are willing to share with NATO. European allies must commit to do more.
North American and European allies, through compromise, always have found a way to have a stake in and benefit from each other’s security. Trump has cooled down his rhetoric and even declared that NATO is no longer obsolete. His team, including Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have assured Europe the U.S. will honor its treaty commitments. It seems that Trump is beginning to understand the value of keeping allies and alliances. The European allies are slowly adapting to the unconventional style and tone of the new U.S. president.
With the UK set to leave the EU, and the latter in need of fundamental reform, NATO is more relevant than ever to ensuring strategic stability in Europe. This will demand from the transatlantic allies funding, leadership, and the striking of a new transatlantic bargain, even if one with eyes wide open.
Ambassador Alexander Vershbow is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He was the former deputy secretary general at NATO until October 2016.
Fabrice Pothier is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’ Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, and the former head of policy planning at NATO.