The last NATO summit in Brussels, thanks to US President Donald Trump’s constant bickering and squabbling with other leaders there, is being generally labelled as one of the most disappointing episodes in the recent history of this alliance. The mood was so much depressing at the gathering that a big chunk of the anti-Trump camp has started talking about the degeneration and disintegration of the almost-70-year-old treaty alliance - indeed very pessimistic and non-pragmatic thinking at the moment. Yes, in his usual belligerent and arrogant style, Donald Trump was very blunt at the summit, but he was talking some sense that needs to be given serious attention by other NATO members. Donald Trump raised two main issues. One, he believes that the United States spends much more than other European members to espouse NATO. And two, he is demanding NATO allies to double their financial contribution to the organisation suddenly.
There is a fundamental difference between the approach of Donald Trump and his European allies in NATO: he thinks that Russia, under the leadership of Putin, is no more a significant threat to the stability and peace in the region and that’s why NATO needs to realign its priorities as per the emerging scenario. On the other hand, most of his European counterparts think that Russia under Putin is much more aggressive and unpredictable and they refer to recent Russian interventions in Crimea, Ukraine and other Baltic states. Trump blames Barack Obama for showing weakness over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. This is perhaps the main divergent point that has led to the existing “difference of opinion” between Donald Trump and European leaders on how to run NATO in the future.
“Many countries are not paying what they should. And, frankly, many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money for many years back, where they’re delinquent, as far as I’m concerned, because the United States has had to pay for them,” is how President Donald Trump expressed his anger during the two day 2018 NATO summit in Brussels. He further asserted that the problem was lingering on “for decades” and he was the first US president to broach this issue at the forum. On money matters, Trump’s arguments can be divided into three parts. The first part is related to the NATO members’ inability to contribute money to the alliance as per the agreed percentage, and the second part is concerned with the huge amount of money that they are supposed to pay to the US as “past dues”, and the third part is linked with the sudden demand to double the financial commitment. This is partially true; the first part is correct to a large extent, the second part is a plain exaggeration, and the third part is unrealistic. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, under an agreement facilitated by the Obama Administration, all NATO members pledged to increase their defence spending to two per cent of their GDP by 2024. So far only four countries - the US, Britain, Estonia and Greece - are honouring this commitment to the fullest. In 2017, the United States spent almost 3.5 per cent of its GDP. Some countries, like France, Poland and Latvia are reasonably close to the benchmark, while others like Belgium, Spain and Luxemburg are at the bottom of the list with less than one per cent contribution.
Although most of the countries do not contribute financially as per the agreed percentage, claiming that the United States can bill other member states for their shortcomings in the past years is entirely out of context of the guidelines of NATO. No clause permits the United States to ask other member states to reimburse their past “arrears”. Here Donald Trump is right to the extent that the United States has always shouldered the biggest chunk of military expenses to compensate for the less-paying NATO countries, but he is technically wrong in his assertion to push others for filling the gap in previous years. This is absurd. One exciting fact is that all the on-going NATO operations and missions across the globe right now – including Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Mediterranean Sea – were mostly initiated at the behest of the United States to, directly and indirectly, safeguard the “American interests”. This is one of the key reason why most NATO members are reluctant to fulfil their financial commitment towards the security alliance that now seems to be more focused on protecting American interest rather than establishing peace and stability in the European continent in general – the prime strategic objective for which this platform was created in the first place.
For quite some time, many European capitals have been pointing towards Washington’s routine practices of using NATO as a tool to propagate American interests –another contributing factor in demotivating them to restrict their defence spending. Trump also stunned allies by making a demand to double their defence-spending target –from two per cent to four per cent of the national GDP. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had tried to press the European allies to increase their defence budgets, but the bullying style of Donald Trump was very new to the US allies in NATO. A rumbustious Donald Trump rather abruptly informed the stunned European leaders that he would now like them to spend 4 per cent of their GDP on defence—more than the US itself presently devotes to its military. This is practically impossible for Trump to succeed in this demand. This appears to be nothing more than bullying tactics to push the European allies to “pay more” than what they are doing today. That is an unworkable demand for some wavering European economies—today or anytime soon. This, however, makes it clear that Trump is unwilling to invest more in the European security unless the Europeans themselves start equating their cost-sharing responsibilities towards the transatlantic alliance.
NATO was created at a time when the Iron Curtain was being drawn across the European continent, where the Soviet Union and its Communist satellite republics started a Cold War based on ideological lines, pitting East against West. Today ground realities are changed. Today the threat perception between Washington and the European capitals is different. Even among the Europeans, the threat perception, particularly about Moscow, is also enormously divergent. Countries like Hungary, Italy, Bulgaria and Germany, which have rather warm ties with Russia, don’t share the same threat perception with some of the new members like Montenegro and other Baltic states.
The organisation was founded in 1949 by 12 nations to pre-empt conflict and counterbalance the Soviet Union, under the idea that Moscow would face a defensive platform if it attempted to attack any one of the member countries. Now seven decades later, particularly after the demise of the Soviet Union and the evaporation of communism in thin air, NATO is finding it hard to keep developing its organisational framework on the basis of old strategic thinking that revolved around countering Moscow’s expansionism, infiltration of communism and global nuclear race. Today, due to the consistent eastwards expansion, the 29-member alliance has now reached to the immediate proximity of Russia after last year’s inclusion of Montenegro which is situated on the Adriatic coast. The irony of the course is that while the shared threat of Russian aggression is fading away, NATO, on the contrary, has kept on expanding eastwards, which has further added the financial burden on the alliance. At the same time, another apprehension for the European members is that the United States is shifting its focus from the North Atlantic area to the South China Sea, which signals the changing priorities of Washington in the coming days. The on-going internal debate about NATO’s long-term vision and viability is a very natural process, and it may take even many years to eventually devise the blueprint as per the changing ground realities of the global power equation.
The writer is a freelance columnist.