hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 13 July 2018

Typhoon Trump and the Brussels NATO Summit

“Two percent is a joke. Four percent is what we should be spending. We [the US] are being played for fools”
President Donald J. Trump, Brussels NATO Summit, 12 July 2018

The Grim Tweeter cameth…

Alphen, Netherlands. 13 July. The Grim Tweeter cameth. First to NATO, then to Britain and next Putin. Typhoon Trump hit NATO on Tuesday evening and by the time he left Europe’s array of small, neat military gardens – pretty but with few flowers or ornaments – were left weed-strewn and Trump-holed. As a minor member of the European strategic ‘elite’, and being in proximity to the Summit at the parallel and excellent NATO Engages conference, my sense was that President Trump did exactly what he came to do but to no particular end. The gathered heads of state and government were so intent on keeping the Alliance ‘thing’ going that they missed (deliberately in some cases) the essential challenge NATO faces. Quite simply, Europeans refuse to consider what could be coming at them in the near future if they still do not become defence serious. The permanently-electioneering President Trump does not look far enough ahead to realise how important the European allies are to America and indeed how they will become more important in the future given worsening American global over-stretch.

What should Europeans actually take-away from the Summit? Two imperatives: European defence investment and the future organisation of European defence. President Trump is essentially right and wrong about NATO. He is right European allies do not spend enough. As the US Senate sensibly concluded this week he is wrong about the value of the Alliance to the US, even if it is only the Washington elite who get that. However, it is European leaders with Germany’s Chancellor Merkel to the fore who face the real challenge. They STILL do not know why they need armed forces and thus cannot explain the need or the sacrifice needed to their respective publics if sound defence and deterrence is to be re-established.

President Trump also has a point about burden-sharing or the lack of it.  The GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Report states; “The United States provides 75% of Alliance forces and pays some 68% of the cost”. In other words, Europeans provide only 25% of NATO’s contemporary forces.  In 1970 Europeans provided 45% percent of the forces and in 1980 some 76% percent. Some have argued the US contribution to the small NATO budget (22%) should be counted, or those US forces specifically committed to the defence of Europe.  Now, there has been a lot of nonsense uttered this week from people who frankly should know better about this. The reason the bulk of US forces must be counted on the NATO balance sheet is that in an emergency it is the bulk of US forces, if available, that would be committed to the defence of Europe.

Defence outcomes not inputs

Defence outcomes are what matters. That critical little phrase, ‘if available’, should have been the centre-piece of a Summit at which the sharing of burdens was always going to be central.  Unfortunately, Europe’s leaders seem incapable of gripping strategic change and thus fail or refuse to recognise that America’s strategic liabilities are changing.  It is increasingly unlikely that in future the Americans would face one emergency in one theatre at any one time.  Therefore, for a legitimate sharing of twenty-first century Alliance burdens to be realised Europeans would need at the very least policies, forces and resources that could cope with a threat from Russia, a major insurgency and its consequences across the Middle East and North Africa and pressure on NATO’s north. In other words, Europeans need an effective first responder force and this Summit should have committed Europeans to that goal beyond the useful but insufficient ‘let’s make the most of what we are likely to have’ goal of the ‘Four-Thirties’ initiative: thirty battalions, thirty squadrons of aircraft, thirty combat shops ready in thirty days. Even the much-reduced British armed forces could stump up at least half of such a force in an emergency. Russia?

There is simply no point in throwing money at many of Europe’s unreformed armed forces that as yet do not know their place in the wider security-technology architecture that the US is leading.  ‘Four-Thirties’ captures the essential dilemma for the Alliance – the failure by Europeans to meet even limited and quite possibly inadequate ambitions.  Unless the Allies can work patiently and seriously towards a new and shared strategic vision for the Alliance a lot of new money spent now on many European forces would be a complete waste of money.  Such money now would be like pouring money down a black hole of obsolescence and reflect the same input ‘crap’ that destroyed the unity of the Afghanistan campaign. Again, what matters is defence outcomes.

What does America want?

At the Summit President Trump became fixated on the ‘2% by January 2019’ ‘thing’ and even went off into a 4% fantasy. Worse, by being so boorish he actually let the Europeans off the hook upon which they should rightly be hanging because he enabled them to focus on his theatre rather than the substance. By all means e a hard negotiator and warrior for the American taxpayer but first America needs to answer a question itself: what does the US actually want from the European allies?

There could, of course, be an alternative political objective.  If President Trump really is serious about American ‘doing its own thing’ assertive isolationism if Europeans do finally start to get their collective strategic act together he could could then say, “See, you can defend yourselves” and pull American forces out. Given the strategic advantages basing American forces on European soil affords Washington the US would be a big loser from such a move.

To pledge or not to pledge

My final sense of the Summit brings me to my second imperative: the future organisation of Europe’s defence. Irrespective of President Trump Europeans have reached an important juncture.  With the best will in the world the Americans can no longer afford to guarantee European defence unless Europeans commit to far more defence. Therefore, if one looks past the theatrics of Trump the real issue is how much more Europeans are prepared to do collectively for their own defence, how would it be organised and at what cost. 

Germany is central to this dilemma (for that is what it is) because Germany is, well, Germany.  The 2% debate has become snagged on Germany. Now, I am the first to argue that NATO members should fulfil the pledge to spend 2% GDP on defence at the 2014 NATO Wales Summit, for all the clever sophistry employed to pretend the pledge was not a pledge.  To un-snag the Defence Investment Pledge I am prepared to cut Germany (because she is Germany) a special deal. For the sake of European stability, Germany should not spend more on defence than either Britain or France and thus commit to, say, 1.5% GDP per annum. However, for the sake of European defence Germany should also commit to a one-off special budget to enable the desperately needed rehabilitation of the broken Bundeswehr, as well as spending on infrastructure to enable improved military mobility.  Then, and only then, might the enormous gap between German political rhetoric and German defence reality start to be closed and some hope for an autonomous European defence begin to be realised.

and the Grim Tweeter wenteth

President Trump may well have succeeded in bullying some of the more vulnerable allies into moving more quickly towards 2% GDP on defence as agreed in the Defence Investment Pledge. It will not happen by January 2019 as he demanded and America “…will not do its own thing’ when they fail. As for the demand that Europeans spend 4% by 2024, there is little evidence the United States will spend such a sum, let alone a Europe full of ‘social warriors’.

For all the theatre this Summit was never about Donald J. Trump and should always have been about whether Europeans could finally begin the long Tour de France (no historical pun intended) needed to properly consider and respond to their own strategic challenges.  The Grim Tweeter cameth, electrified some in his ‘base’ by giving a bunch of free-riding, pesky, over-dressed, pompous Europeans pieces of his many minds, then the Grim Tweeter wenteth, via Britain to Putin and to who knows where and to what end.

The future NATO?  Two very capable and compatible pillars: North America and Europe.

Julian Lindley-French

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