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Trump and the indispensable NATO

23 May 2017 - 11:46
Source: US Army graphic

On 25 May, President Trump will shake the hands of the European political leaders at the NATO mini-summit in Brussels. Trump will no longer call the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ‘obsolete’ as he did during his election campaign. Vice-President Pence, Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis have set the tone in recent months: NATO remains indispensable in the insecure world of the 21st century and the United States will continue to defend Europe.

But we should not expect everyone to be as thick as thieves. Trump will use the occasion to point out the European allies’ deficiencies, particularly as regards their defence efforts. The unequal distribution of the burden has been a thorn in the Americans’ side for some time. Trump appears to be ready to tighten the thumbscrews where his predecessors preferred caution, and he has a point. At the NATO summit in Wales in 2014, all the government leaders promised to strive to increase defence expenditure to 2% of Gross National Product by 2024. This meant that a political objective had been defined – in Trump’s jargon, a deal – and Washington expects its allies to honour their promise.

Various critical observations can be made about the 2% standard. It measures input, not output. When money is spent on the wrong equipment – for which there is no need from a NATO viewpoint – this does  not result in better European capabilities. Greece is the standard example. The country has met the 2% standard for many years, but uses it mainly to strengthen its defences against Turkey. Athens participates little in NATO operations. Another objection is that, in a period of continuing recession, the defence budget falls as a result of reducing GNP, while at the same time, insecurity may grow. But it serves no purpose to make any more such observations. The 2% standard has obtained highly political connotations and it is now up to the European leaders to come up with an answer to Trump’s question, ‘Where’s the beef?’ Of course, this is not only about the money, it particularly concerns strengthening the European defensive capacity to take the load off the Americans.

Unfortunately, many European countries are not in a good position. Defence expenditure is increasing everywhere, but in most cases this is to catch up after  the negative effects of budget reductions in the past. Reparation is the best word to describe the policy. Still, very little is happening to strengthen military  capacities against the increasing threats from the neonationalist Russia or from the turbulent Middle East and Africa. Particularly Germany will be in for a grilling from Trump. Berlin has decided to increase the defence budget from 34 billion euros (2016) to around 40 billion in 2021. But this is still a long way from the 2% standard, which would demand a rise to more like 60 billion. Until the elections in September, Chancellor Merkel will be reluctant  to commit herself to higher spending levels. Broad swathes of the German population oppose further militarisation. The German government points out that expenditure for development aid and reconstruction in conflict areas should be included too. Unfortunately Washington is not sympathetic to this idea.

The Netherlands is not in a great position either. The new government, whatever its composition, will spend more on defence. The question is how much. The average from the election campaigns of the three ‘engine block’ parties (VVD, CDA and D66) is about an extra 1.3 billion, to be reached in 2021. This would mean the Netherlands spending 10 billion on defence that year. There would be another three years left to achieve the 2% standard, resulting in a defence budget of around 15 billion in 2024. This appears unfeasible politically, and is moreover impossible in practice. It would mean the budget rising too fast in too short a time. Due to the limitations in the armed forces’ absorptive capacity – the purchase of equipment and recruitment and training of personnel cost time – a substantial budget increase needs to be spread over a longer period. Due to this, a start must be made during the incoming Rutte-3 government.

Merkel, Rutte and the other European leaders could possibly find a rhetorical escape route from the dilemma that they themselves have helped create through their commitment to the 2% standard. The years after 2021 after all occur after the coming period of government. It is easy to make promises beyond the own term in office. But this is playing with fire, not only because of possible reactions from Trump. Much more important is that some European countries, while recognising the deteriorating security situation, do not attach sufficient consequences to it. The recently-published report from the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy argues emphatically for greater awareness and translation of this into policy and expenditure for our security. Hopefully, the new government takes this plea seriously. The new French President Macron has stated that Europe must do more for defence. He wants France and Germany to take the lead in this. The Netherlands ought to join in here. In the end, it is less important whether the 2% standard is achieved exactly. What this is actually about is that Europe must accept its responsibility in the field of security, substantially improve its defence output and thus contribute to a better sharing of the burden with America.

On 23 May, prior to the mini-summit in Brussels, the Atlantic Association and the Clingendael Institute have held a public debate about NATO in the Trump Era