As Donald Trump stood beside Vladimir Putin on Monday and stated that he believes the Russian president over his own intelligence agencies, you could feel a collective shudder pass across Europe.
"If Trump isn't even willing to side with his own intelligence agencies over Russia right now, why would anyone think he would side with us?” one Latvian friend sent me in a text. “NATO is finished. And if NATO is finished, Latvia is finished".
There has been much speculation since Monday over why Trump would defy his own intelligence, his own party and even his own advisors in refusing to acknowledge that Russia interfered in the 2016 US election. But whatever the reason, Trump’s summit with Putin, immediately following his aggressive attacks on NATO in Brussels, have left many Europeans with only one conclusion: we’re on our own now.
Some are still clinging to the fact that even as the US president denigrates the alliance, the US military and state department are devoting new resources and coming up with new protection plans such as the ‘four 30s’ rapid response plan for a Russian invasion.
But increasingly few people see Trump’s behaviour as a temporary state of affairs. Many have been preparing for a sudden change in the defensive situation of Europe for two years. Even during the 2016 campaign Trump made clear his disdain for NATO, calling it an outdated institution. In July of that year he said he wouldn’t necessarily come to the aid of a NATO member that was attacked, if that country wasn’t meeting the suggested military spending threshold of two percent of GDP.
Trump doubled down on this threat in Helsinki. Asked by Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson whether the US should come to the defence of a country like Montenegro if it were attacks, Trump said he doesn't think it makes sense to do so. He said the Montenegrans are "very aggressive" and could drag the United States into World War III.
His comments mirrored almost exactly Putin's comments about the county. Montenegro once solidly within the Russian orbit along with Serbia, infuriated the Russians when it switched sides and joined NATO last year.
Europeans were shocked by the comments, but anyone who has been paying attention for the past two years shouldn't have been. Trump made his disdain for NATO clear during the presidential campaign.
Those who were paying attention in 2016 immediately began urging an acceleration of EU defence capability following Trump's election. Work was accelerated to build the European Union ‘defence union’ – or permanent structured cooperation. Such a project has been urged by the French for years but, until now, blocked by the British. With Brexit looming, it has gone ahead on a voluntary basis for those EU countries that want to participate. Everyone except the UK and Denmark have joined.
Observers have pointed out that it would take at least ten years, and probably a lot longer, to bring this EU defence capability to a state where it would be a viable defensive force.
But why reinvent the wheel? Europe already has a pan-continental military alliance, which at the moment also spans the North Atlantic. As leaders have learned in the past week, the Atlantic aspect of this alliance may at this point be causing more problems than solutions. Is it time to politely ask the three non-European members of the alliance - America, Canada and Turkey - to leave?
Given that NATO was set up effectively as a US protectorate over Europe, is an America-free NATO even possible?
NATO, which stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, was established in 1949 among the victorious allied partners after World War II to contain Russian Communist territorial expansion. It was set up by, and for, the United States. The US was always expected to be the main partner of the alliance – this was by design.
Though France was one of the founding members of the alliance, in 1966 President Charles De Gaul took the country out of NATO’s military command, protesting against the US dominance in the organisation which he said amounted to a US protectorate over Europe.
While De Gaul had accepted the US dominance at the start due to the collapsed state of the European members, he had expected that within 15 years the Europeans would be given something closer to an equal role once the countries had rebuilt. This was not the case.
NATO never really changed from that original setup. As France protested from the sidelines, the UK and West Germany were happy to have more and more US bases and American troops stationed in their countries. Indeed, there were more American troops in Germany than German ones. Nicolas Sarkozy eventually took France back into NATO in 2009, but the country still refuses to host US troops.
As NATO enlarged, the new countries came to accept that this was the organisation they were joining – a US protectorate that would enable them to avoid heavy investments in their militaries. For the small countries emerging from the other side of the iron curtain, the attraction was obvious.
But without the context of the Cold War, the benefit for the Americans was becoming less and less obvious. In the 1990s and 2000s European countries began significantly scaling down their military investments, assuming the ‘end of history’ made such investments unnecessary.
A European NATO?
The glaring problem was always that the NATO system makes Europeans completely dependent on the goodwill of the United States to guarantee their protection, because they would not be able to defend themselves from a Russian attack.
So when Trump threatened other NATO members last week that if they didn’t immediately increase their defence spending the US may go it alone, the implicit threat was taken quite seriously. If the US suddenly pulled out of NATO it would leave Europe relatively defenceless overnight. The US spends more on its military than all the other members combined.
A US and Turkey exit would leave France and the UK as the only significant militaries in the alliance – another good reason to keep military defence outside of EU structures in the event of a Brexit. Other countries would have to quickly ramp up their capability. But the pressure of being defenceless in the short term could certainly encourage that ramp-up.
In the long term, would it not be best for Europe that America leaves the alliance? What if, rather than building something new from scratch in the EU Defence Union, a European self-defence capacity was constructed from the base already existing with NATO?
What if NATO were transformed into ETO – the European Treaty Organization? Without America, Canada and Turkey, the remaining countries would have to significantly increase their military spending, and fast. But they would know they can count on the new formation.
Turkey’s exit from the alliance has long been speculated since President Erdogan’s crack-down on civil society. Many say Turkey should have been kicked out long ago.
Why should European countries increase their spending in an alliance that could collapse at any moment based on the whims of the US president? As one summit attendee in the press room put it, “he’s asking Europeans to pay for their own military occupation.”
Do it for Europe, not for Trump
European NATO members are increasing their spending, and have been since before the Trump presidency. But Trump’s humiliating public demands on them to do so have made further efforts in ramping up spending politically difficult. German politicians know they have to enlarge their military. But they don’t want to be seen to be doing it out of fear of Trump. Wouldn’t it be better to be doing it in the context of creating a European capacity for self-defence, ending the humiliation of the American protectorate?
If Europeans choose to view these new Trump dynamics as an opportunity rather than a problem, they should be aware that the window of opportunity may be closing. The US military and US Congress are adamantly opposed to any weakening of NATO and are appalled at Trump’s efforts to undermine it. The US Senate passed a resolution, 98 votes to 2, ahead of the summit reaffirming America’s commitment to the alliance despite Trump’s outbursts.
Asked on Thursday whether he thinks he could pull the US out of NATO unilaterally, without an act of congress, the president said “probably, but it won’t be necessary.” He is, constitutional scholars agree, wrong. And congress is unlikely to agree to leaving the institution America set up 70 years ago to project American power across the world. That is, unless their president has walked them into a corner making it impossible not to do so. Either way, those Europeans who want to see their continent weaned off of its dependence on America should take this president up on his offer while it’s on the table.
An America-free NATO could be exactly what the institution needs to make it prepared for what is to come in the 21st century. Europe has benefitted from the Pax Americana for 70 years – an unprecedented era of peace.
If Europe wants this peace to continue, it may be time to strive toward a Pax Europa – an era where peace is guaranteed from unified European self-defence - not by the American protectorate.
Wouldn't it be nice to live in a world where Europeans didn't have to kiss Donald Trump's ass?