NATO without America

POLITICAL FUTURES - Ian Bremmer - The Philippine Star

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the most successful military alliance in history, is stronger than it’s ever been. Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine made NATO’s continuing purpose and value crystal clear, and the organization brought in able new members Finland and Sweden. And while Russia is steadily losing soldiers, weapons and its longer-term economic resilience, it is Ukraine, not NATO, that is absorbing Russia’s blows.

But what about the future? European leaders know that Donald Trump has a solid chance of winning November’s US presidential election and that, given Trump’s history with the alliance, a Trump restoration would cast doubt on the lasting commitment of NATO’s core contributor and the credibility of the security guarantees that make the alliance so powerful.

In fairness to the former president, he has raised some legitimate gripes. After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, each member-state pledged to spend at least 2 percent of national GDP on defense by 2024. Two months ago, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that for the first time since the alliance’s birth in 1949, European members will collectively meet that target. But this is only because some states, particularly those closest to Russia’s borders, spend more than their quota. Thirteen of NATO’s 31 members still don’t meet that threshold, and Trump has again called their reliability as allies into question. Why, he asks, if they fear Russia so much, are they still unwilling to spend 2 percent of GDP on their own security?Nearly all of Europe’s leaders recognize the need to spend more, and Trump’s recent taunt that Russia should “do whatever it wants” with those that refuse (who, of course, are among the furthest from the Russian border...) has some Europeans wondering what a second Trump presidency might mean for them.

The question is deceptively simple: Could NATO continue to exist without a clear and credible American commitment? During ceremonies earlier this month to celebrate the 75th anniversary of NATO’s founding, Stoltenberg proposed a $100-billion, five-year fund for Ukraine that would not depend on the outcome of America’s November election. But beyond Ukraine policy, the fear that Europeans might be forced to answer that question before they’re ready has moved European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to call for creation of a European defense commissioner.

This would hardly be the first ambitious plan the continent’s leaders have undertaken in recent years. They boosted the rollout of vaccines during the pandemic, provided emergency relief for governments that needed it and launched a costly and complex transition away from dependence on Russia for energy supplies. They did all this while absorbing the large numbers of refugees that began arriving in historic numbers a decade ago.

If they can accomplish all that, can’t they Trump-proof European security by creating an independent and strongly coordinated European defense industrial policy, supported by the EU budget and the single market? There are three reasons to be skeptical, at least for the near term.

First, a stronger role for the commission in defense and industrial policy will take time to design and implement. During that complicated process, it will meet opposition from national policymakers who don’t want to surrender control of these policies. That’s especially true for members most concerned that France, the longtime advocate of collective European defense and the only current EU member with nuclear weapons, will have most power to set European security policy.

Second, the EU remains deeply dependent on US weapons systems, access to US intelligence and on Washington as the driving force behind NATO’s interoperability across countries. The continuing threat from Russia will persuade more Europeans than ever to spend more on defense, build intelligence capabilities and increase the size of their militaries, but these processes will take a decade or more to accomplish. The present danger won’t allow for that long a transition.

Finally, at least a few European governments would gladly choose tighter alignment with Trump over ever-closer ties with fellow EU members. Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Slovakia’s Robert Fico are obvious examples. And in years to come, we may well see other (and more systemically important) EU member-countries elect populist, Russia-friendly governments. Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has been steadfast in support for Ukraine, but that might change if Trump returns to the White House. If Marine Le Pen finally becomes president of France in 2027, closer alignment with Trump is far from impossible even in Paris, where the desire for European foreign and security policies independent of Washington has long been strongest.

Beyond the November US election, there’s a longer-term question to consider. If Trump loses, will the drive toward a more isolationist and transactional American foreign policy die with his political career? Or have new generations of American voters, those not old enough to remember the global role the US played, for better and for worse, between 1945 and 2008 changed American public attitudes toward the “global leadership” that both Democrats and Republicans once insisted the US must provide?

If so, not even a Biden victory will halt this debate within Europe.

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