Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States has been shrouded in controversy. His apparent close links with Russia and questioning about the ongoing relevance of NATO has caused concern on both sides of the Atlantic. Trump’s questioning of the European dependence on the US for its security and the imbalance in relative spending and military capability between the United States and the European members is not new for an incoming or even serving US President. Nor is a questioning of NATO’s future, John Mearsheimer’s classic ‘Back to the Future’ piece in the journal International Security are evidence of this. What is new is his questioning of Article V of the Washington Treaty which provides the collective security guarantee for all NATO members. Without it the value of NATO membership is unclear.
Adding to the complication of Trump’s challenge is the timing of this. Questioning the relevance and future of NATO at a time where Russia, and in the past its predecessor the Soviet Union, is openly becoming increasingly assertive in what it perceives to be its area of influence. The central question confronting the NATO alliance is whether to acquiesce to Russia’s tacit demands that NATO respects its dominance of the post-Soviet space and let’s Russia illegally annex the Ukraine, attack Georgia and so forth, or alternatively continues to allow democratic states that wish to continue to join the alliance and benefit from the collective security guarantee.
In response to Trump’s latest comments on NATO, German Chancellor Merkel has stated that the Europeans may have to provide for their own security without the United States. Fine words but the reality of this for Europe is at best questionable, especially given the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union and the possibility of the election of Marine Le Pen as French President followed by a French vote to leave the European Union. Countering the increasing threat posed by Russia looks increasingly precarious for those in NATO, for those in the former Soviet space that have not yet managed to join the NATO, the situation is far more disconcerting.
Fifty years on from the adoption of the Harmel report by NATO, which led to a focus on both dialogue in the form of détente and deterrence with Russia, there is increasing unease in the hallways of the NATO governments. Normally one would expect the incoming US president and those around him to emphasise reassurance and continuity to its partners. However, such conventions do not appear to apply to Donald Trump and whilst those he has nominated to key cabinet positions, such as Marine General Mattis as the new Defense Secretary, are emphasising the ongoing importance of NATO for the US, Trump himself continues to send a contradictory message which Russia would no doubt approve. At best the road ahead for NATO will be rocky, at worst we may be seeing the destruction of the most significant military alliance in history.
Image: NATO Headquarters meeting. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.