* These are not negotiating tactics. They are the tactics of someone who does not want a deal.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a policy roundtable on NATO by our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review.
When asked about President Donald Trump’s July 2018 visit to Europe, Henry Kissinger presciently noted, “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretences.” In other words, for all the uproar surrounding the president’s personality, something bigger is going on, and Trump has come to personify it. Perhaps the biggest challenge is, therefore, to put words to this shifting ground and imagine its potential consequences.
In this short essay, I argue that NATO is actually witnessing a return of European geopolitics that runs in parallel to the questioning of geopolitical priorities occurring in the United States. European allies clearly prefer continuity when it comes to NATO, but are also coming to realize that as power shifts, so too must institutions. If the big shift comes and the United States leaves NATO, Western Europe may scrape by, but Eastern Europe will pay the price with the loss of sovereignty. Averting this major shift requires a stronger Europe within NATO, not only in terms of budgets but also the political influence. Yet it is not clear that the Atlantic allies are ready to recast their bargain and stick to it.
The German Question
Geopolitical malaise accompanied Trump at every stage of his European visit. His disdain for NATO allies was remarkable — at the NATO summit, he threatened that the United States might “go it alone” and later questioned whether he would come to the defence of Montenegro, a NATO ally — as was his disregard for British Prime Minister Theresa May’s need for a functioning special relationship with the United States, and his camaraderie with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Geopolitically speaking, it is appropriate that Trump should give much attention, first to Germany, and then two of its neighbouring powers, Britain and Russia, but Trump’s German policy (and policy might be too strong a word) is both contradictory and incomplete.
The contradiction relates to the interpretation of whether or not Germany is masterfully in control of events. On the one hand, Trump indicates it is when he portrays Germany as a savvy mercantilist nation that out-trades its partners to run up outsized trade surpluses. This is not “fair and reciprocal,” he argues, but rather a critical national security threat to industries in the United States.
This explains why the president can designate the European Union a “foe” of the United States ahead of traditional geopolitical rivals such as China and Russia. On the other hand, Trump argues that Germany has essentially lost its geopolitical free will and has become hostage to Russia on account of energy imports: “Germany is totally controlled by Russia,” is how he framed it at an opening event of the NATO summit in July.
Ruthless mastermind or Russian subject? These contradictory narratives about Germany may simply be tools of convenience for a president determined to disrupt relations and gain bargaining advantages, but they also reveal an incomplete understanding of Germany’s role in European and transatlantic geopolitics.
Germany is the quintessential power in the middle that either gets to define the geopolitical order by East-West “flank” diplomacy, or which is brought into a wider order by one of its flanks — East or West. NATO is the face of a western order that, as Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO’s first secretary-general, famously put it, serves to keep the United States in, Germany down, and Russia out.
By questioning the U.S. security guarantee in NATO, and by disrupting the Atlantic horizon that has defined the focal point for German foreign policy since the founding of the Federal Republic (post-1945), Trump is effectively inviting the return of European flank diplomacy. He has never addressed this issue and shows no sign of understanding its implications, and therefore there is no way of knowing how he feels about it.
European diplomats clearly understand the drift and abhor the prospect. To the extent that they will be successful in containing the scope of change, they must grapple with the intricacies of enlarging the European footprint inside NATO — Europeanizing the alliance — while simultaneously satisfying both American and European interests. If they cannot do this, they face the prospect of Atlantic disconnect and a fuller return to European geopolitics that might allow for continued collective defence in Western Europe but, tragically, a type of appeasement policy for Eastern Europe.
The Strategy of Choice
The strategy of choice of European leaders is to contain the possibility of full-scale Europeanization of security and defence issues. It implies NATO continuity, meaning a continued U.S. commitment to temper the geopolitical impulses of the European continent. To achieve this, allies are willing to let Trump claim (exaggerated) credit for raising allied defense budgets: According to my sources, on day two of the NATO summit when Trump, quite unprecedentedly, derailed a partnership meeting with renewed criticism of allied defence spending, allied heads of state urged him to claim credit for budgetary increases they knew full well had been set in motion before the Trump presidency.
More than this, they have invested in the range of policy issues that align with mainstream U.S. security interests — force readiness and conventional deterrence, counter-terrorism, cyber defense, enhanced support for Afghan security force training and North Korean diplomacy, and addressing Iran’s military capabilities — all of which featured in the NATO summit declaration. It is effectively a message that European allies continue to support the infrastructure — NATO — that not only stabilizes Europe but also offers the United States both a staging ground for Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African engagements and early warning systems for the defence, not of allies, but of the continental United States.
The strategy of choice is, thus, to push for a greater European footprint inside NATO, where European allies invest in shared, but also, notably, U.S. security priorities in return for NATO’s continued containment of flank diplomacy in Europe. It is not a strategy that resonates with Trump, but it does resonate with the U.S. defence establishment led by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, as well as the vast majority of the U.S. Congress.
Thus, to align with the latter and steer clear of presidential tantrums, some allied and NATO officials have toyed with the idea of changing the format of NATO summitry to privilege defence business over political grandstanding — a possible change of pace for the alliance’s 70th-anniversary summit in 2019.
Even if this attempt at containing both Trump and full Atlantic disconnect is successful, the allies will still face the challenge of change — of shifting more of the burden to Europe and creating a more equal partnership. How Europe (and Canada) can gain a voice in an alliance traditionally shaped around U.S. leadership is a key question.
The United States has historically opposed a European caucus inside NATO, and Europeans are not going to settle for a division of labour whereby they do light development work and leave serious defence business to U.S.-led coalitions. At a minimum, therefore, in this new era exposed by Trump’s presidency, the allies must take on the challenging task of shifting burdens to Europe but also offering Europe greater influence in alliance affairs — something that conflicts with Trump’s preference for bilateral negotiations.
How a more European but still Atlantic NATO could work out is really anybody’s guess. NATO has a treaty provision, Article 4, guaranteeing “consultations” on issues of major importance to allied nations, but the format for such consultations has historically been contested and varied.
For as long as the U.S. commitment to NATO seemed rock solid, the European allies were generally content to shape U.S. policy by various, indirect formats of European cooperation — sometimes in improvised format (such as European Political Cooperation), sometimes via low-level initiatives in NATO (such as the Eurogroup), sometimes by reviving dormant frameworks of consultations (such as the Western European Union), and sometimes by exploiting the security dimension of the European Union.
Now, in this new era, as Kissinger labels it, the challenge is one of moving Europeanization to the highest political level inside the alliance itself to satisfy desires in the United States for burden-sharing and in Europe for influence in a continued alliance.
The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at warontherocks.com