European security in the Trump Era

01 Haziran 2017

The NATO summit in Brussels on May 25, three days after the Manchester suicide bomb attack, was an important gathering not only because it brought together the newly elected Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May with other leaders, but also because they decided to step up NATO’s role in the fight against terrorism.

With doubts regarding the U.S. commitment to European defense after the election of U.S. President Trump circulating in Western media outlets, the summit was anxiously awaited by many to see whether Trump would re-confirm the U.S.’ pledge to Europe. Moreover, as he has constantly criticized NATO members since his campaign days for not paying their dues (while even calling NATO an obsolete organization), he was under the spotlight at his first NATO Summit. In the end, he failed to reaffirm the collective defense clause of NATO, Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, instead telling the allies that they should pay up their “accumulated debts” to close “the gaps in modernizing, readiness and the size of forces.”

Since the Wales summit on Sept. 4, 2014, and the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the issue of defense expenditures has been one of the pressing issues for member states in order to increase NATO’s defense capability and presence in Eastern Europe. As of today, only five of the 28 members, the U.S., Poland, Estonia, Greece and the United Kingdom, meet the agreed obligation to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Despite all efforts, only 16 allies have somewhat increased their defense expenditures as a share of their GDP in 2016. Thus, Trump was quite right in his call for the allies to live up to their promises, but his harsh remarks and brusque behavior was disconcerting for many.

Nevertheless, the leaders were able to agree on NATO’s formal membership in the global coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) following the creation of the anti-jihadist front in September 2014 under U.S. leadership. It was a step that was important but also largely symbolic, as all the individual members are already part of the coalition.

In fact, NATO has been playing an important role in Iraq, training national security forces to combat ISIL and operating in the area of intelligence gathering with its AWACS early warning and control systems in line with the decisions taken at the Warsaw Summit in July 2016. The most recent decision will further enhance NATO’s support in the fight against terrorism “with more flying hours, more information sharing and also with air-to-air refueling.” Also, a new intelligence cell will be established in Brussels to better coordinate intelligence sharing and action among members.

In terms of Russia, although Trump mentioned the Russian threat in his speech by saying “the NATO of the future must include a great focus on terrorism and immigration, as well as threats from Russia and on NATO’s eastern and southern borders,” it was far from meeting the expectations of especially the Baltic member states, which consider Russia as the main treat. Though Trump’s insistence on increasing defense expenditures could in a way be interpreted as a positive sign for deterring Russia from further aggression, most experts on international security would agree by now that Russia needs clearer signs to be deterred.

While Trump has been wavering in his commitment to European defense, German  Chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to announce on May 28 that “the days when Europe could rely on others was over” and it must take its fate into its own hands. Coming in the wake of Trump’s trip to meet EU, NATO and G-7 leaders, this tough rhetoric might indicate difficult choices in the coming days for the European allies.