Almost all the media attention surrounding NATO since last week’s summit focused on President Trump and, as usual, he provided much material. The President began the week by anticipating it might be easier to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin than with America’s NATO allies. While in Brussels, he repeated his erroneous claim that many countries in NATO are ‘delinquent for years in payments’ and owe the U.S. reimbursements, as if the alliance were a country club. At one point, he claimed that Germany was ‘totally controlled by Russia’. Then, most dramatically, on Monday’s summit with President Putin in Helsinki, Trump stated he believed Putin’s claim that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.
Just as predictable that Trump would steal the show was the critical commentary that followed. Fact checkers exploded Trump’s claim of delinquency. Others provided perspective on the serious limitations of measuring a state’s contribution to NATO through defence spending alone. Still more pointed out that Europeans and Canadians have indeed contributed significantly to NATO, in both blood and treasure. The broad conclusion is that President Trump’s behaviour and statements pose one of the most significant threats to the integrity of the alliance since its founding in 1949.
In 2017, NATO’s European members spent nearly four times as much on defence as Russia, and defence spending is increasing year-on-year.
These are important arguments, but the focus on Trump’s theatrics have distracted from the more insidious challenge to the Alliance; one that emanates not from the U.S., but from within Europe. The continent sits in disunity. The far-right controls or shares power in governments in Hungary and Poland, as well as in (non-NATO) Austria. In Germany, France, and the Netherlands right-wing movements continue to snap at the heels of mainstream politicians. The British have finally settled on a Brexit strategy, but it is a fragile one and pregnant with potential for further chaos. The migrant crisis remains unresolved with recent agreements doing little beyond elucidating the sharpness of national divides. Despite recent overtures by Turkish President Recep Erdogan, Turkish-European relations are the lowest they have been in decades. And across the border, NATO’s principal adversary, Russia, watches with satisfaction. Moscow benefits from this disunity greatly and does much to encourage it, but these centrifugal forces are, at root, organic to Europe.
The second issue concerns defence spending. As the experts must tire of pointing out, the problem is not the numbers alone. In 2017, NATO’s European members spent nearly four times as much on defence as Russia, and defence spending is increasing year-on-year. The rub lies within how this money is spent and how effectively it is used to streamline European forces. A recent McKinsey report found that European militaries use 178 different weapon systems, compared to 30 in the U.S. In practice, this might mean that a French pilot cannot operate a German helicopter and vice-versa. A pooled procurement system would drastically save costs and improve interoperability, but political divisions over which national producer secures the procurement contracts will significantly hamper these efforts. What might be good for French or German arms producers is bad for NATO.
But the harder truth is that decades of European complacency around defence readiness and the continent’s inability to fully realise political alignment, let alone unity, has rendered the conglomerate in Brussels the more problematic partner.
The problem deepens when the logistical challenges of moving troops across Western Europe are considered. The institutional and infrastructural framework that sustained this capability during the Cold War has disintegrated. Among other vulnerabilities, European members lack the heavy airlift capabilities needed to rapidly transport equipment and personnel cross-continent. The result is a collection of disorganised and enfeebled European forces.
It must be easy for articulate European leaders to lob retorts at crude Trumpisms. Witness Donald Tusk’s rebuke to Trump to ‘appreciate your allies, you don’t have many after all’. But the harder truth is that decades of European complacency around defence readiness and the continent’s inability to fully realise political alignment, let alone unity, has rendered the conglomerate in Brussels the more problematic partner.
In this view, then, how should last week’s summit be assessed? The main success was the establishment of the ‘Joint Support and Enabling Command’ in Germany. This will go some way towards addressing the logistics challenge, but its usefulness is limited unless European states commit to actually upgrading the necessary infrastructure. A number of smaller initiatives were agreed upon as well, including new contributions to missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the establishment of a new maritime command structure in Norfolk, Virginia. Macedonia was also invited to join the Alliance. Given the fear about what Trump might have done to the summit, these can all be considered successes. But NATO’s European and Canadian members should not be too celebratory, as the creeping rot within NATO and Europe remained mostly unacknowledged.