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President Trump has been in office for two years now. In the previous Brussels Backdrop, we covered President Trump as a person and his statements on NATO before becoming president. In this Brussels Backdrop, we will assess US foreign policy under Trump and his course of action towards NATO and the European allies.

Is NATO Obsolete?

During his presidential campaign, Trump promised to tackle the free-riding of some European allies and to make fair burden sharing a cornerstone of his NATO policy. He also complained that NATO was not enough involved in counterterrorism and in defending Ukraine. In an interview with The Times on 16 January 2016, Trump said that the West should trust Putin and that ‘NATO was obsolete’. He invited British Prime Minister May to the White House and declared that other European countries would follow the British example and leave the EU.

Ten days later, May visited Trump after his inauguration. In their joint press conference, it was May who confirmed Trump’s “100% commitment toward NATO”. The president himself kept quiet which worried the European Allies, especially Poland and the Baltic States. To reassure them, Trump reiterated the US support for NATO in a phone call he made with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg on 5 February. A month later, Trump tweeted that “Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO” and that “the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defence it provides to Germany”. Germany’s Minister of Defence, Ursula von der Leyen, quickly rebuked Trump’s allegations and said that “there is no debt account at NATO” and that America’s military commitment to NATO was not a “favour to Europe” but a mutually beneficial arrangement, because keeping Europe “whole and free” was key to US interests.

It’s all about Money

On 25 and 26 May 2017, at the new NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Trump criticised member states for their levels of defence spending, but at the same time he received a commitment from NATO to formally join the international anti-ISIS coalition. However, he broke with diplomatic rules when he publicly castigated 23 of 28 NATO members for failing to spend enough on defence, placing an unfair burden on US taxpayers. Once more, Trump’s statements alarmed European Allies, who openly questioned America’s commitment to Article 5 of the NATO charter regarding the mutual obligation for common defence.

On 15 December, after Trump had signed the National Defense Authorization Act’s 2018 budget, providing US$25M dollars for road-based cruise missile technology, in violation of the 1987 and 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, NATO released a statement in support of Trump’s decision, stating that “full compliance with the INF Treaty is essential”. Russia was blamed for breaking the Treaty first, and the Allies gave their full support to the American actions.

At a meeting of NATO Heads of State on 11 July 2018 in Brussels, Trump turned up late for the summit, with an agenda that would stun the Allies. First, he accused Germany of not spending enough money on defence and of being a “captive” of Russia by becoming dependent on Russian energy supplies. Later on, he made a surprise demand for members to raise their defence spending to 4% of GDP, even though most members don’t even spend the agreed 2% on their defence budget. Then he left May, Merkel and Macron waiting at a meeting about Georgia and Afghanistan and when he finally arrived, he went on a diplomatic rampage. Trump dispensed with the usual diplomatic niceties and charged forward, saying his predecessors in the White House had pushed for an increase by Europeans on defence spending and he was not going to put up with it. He said that the European Allies had to raise spending by January 2019, or the United States would leave NATO, thus abandoning the alliance that had been the cornerstone of its military strategy for 69 years. The ultimatum set by Trump that all European Allies had to reach NATO’s defence spending target that same year, urged NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg to call an emergency meeting. However, the meeting broke up, without Stoltenberg or any of the other European leaders offering a single concession. At the press conference that was held later, Trump hailed the summit as a success and praised NATO. He further insisted that his relationship with other NATO leaders was good and – though other European leaders later disputed this – that they had agreed to significant increases in spending.

Trump and Macron: a Bromance Gone Wrong

Under Trump, US relations with Germany are at a low not seen since the Second World War. With the second biggest power of the EU, France, relations are also troubled. Although Trump and Macron at first found themselves in what was described as a “bromance”, tensions rose high at several occasions. In November 2018, Trump made some remarkable tweets about Macron and France. In a radio interview, Macron had appeared to cast the United States as a threat. Trump rejected Macron’s warnings against the threat of nationalism, delivered during an emotional ceremony in Paris attended by scores of world leaders. When pointing to Macron’s recent comments about Europe’s need to protect itself, he tweeted “it was Germany in World Wars One & Two – How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the US came along. Pay for NATO or not!” But the final blow to Franco-American relations was given when Trump unilaterally decided on 19 December, in total neglect of France’s strategy and interests in the region, to withdraw American forces from Syria.

A mid-July 2018 TIME magazine cover illustrated the rift between the US and its European NATO allies. (Photo: Time)

An article that was published in the New York Times on 14 January 2019 again set off alarm bells in the NATO Headquarters and in the capitals of Europe: apparently, Trump keeps saying in meetings, that NATO is costing the US too much money and that it would be better for the US to leave the Alliance. The official reaction from the White House, stating that the US valued NATO and was strongly committed to the Alliance, did little to reassure NATO diplomats. Again, fears were raised that the US would go its own way if the Europeans did not comply. When Defence Secretary Pompeo refused to deny the statements made in the NYT article and refused to guarantee that the US would comply with the Article 5 obligations, panic took hold among NATO members; everyone believed that Trump would announce in his State of the Union on 5 February that the US would withdraw from NATO. Stoltenberg rushed to Washington in an attempt to smooth things over. He did not get to meet the president, but met with Pompeo instead. In an interview with Fox News, Trump’s preferred TV channel, Stoltenberg stressed that the European Allies had understood Trump’s message and that they would continue to act accordingly. Since 2016, the European member states and Canada had already invested US$41Bn on defence and by 2020, that figure would rise to US$100Bn. Soon after, Trump tweeted: “Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, just stated that because of me NATO has been able to raise far more money than ever before from its members after many years of decline. It’s called burden sharing. Also, more united. Dems & Fake News like to portray the opposite!”

Conclusion

Now, what to think of Trump’s parcours with NATO and the European Allies after two years of presidency?

The first thing that catches the eye is that Trump is a complete political outsider to the world of international politics and diplomacy. He was a New York businessman and a TV celebrity with a reputation of being uncouth and telling it as it is. This attitude won him great popularity with many Americans, and finally also the presidency. If Trump is as narcissistic as many believe, then being popular with his voters is the most important thing on his mind. What else does he have to win or lose? He is in his seventies and he is a prominent billionaire and holds the most important office in the world. The ‘American dream’ really came true for him.

As an outsider, with few ties to the political and media establishment, he ownes his position entirely to the American public. It is for his voters that Trump wants to deliver. He shares their dislike for Europeans and for liberals like Merkel and Macron and for diplomatic rules and established policies that are perceived as unfavourable towards the US. With his re-election coming up in less than two years, it is very likely that this will influence his political standpoints and actions in the near future (for example, the wall on the border with Mexico he insists on building).

There is a pattern to his moves: Trump first threatens to drop the Article 5 obligation, or else leave NATO, and then one of his staff softens the consequences. The panic his statements cause, are used for political gain for the US on the international scene: letting go of the INF Treaty, Europeans contributing more to the fight against ISIS, the retreat from Syria and above all, European Allies spending more money on defence. All these actions, including insulting European leaders, make him a great president in the eyes of his electorate. In other words: the president and his administration blow hot and cold at the same time. With regard to North Korea and to European defence spending, this strategy bore fruits. After all, Trump’s critique on Europe isn’t new: almost all presidents since Bush senior have asked for larger European contributions, in vain. Trump, with his non-conformistic approach, succeeded where his predecessors failed. As part of the deal, Trump accepts bad relations with European leaders like Merkel and Macron. There is no mutual sympathy anyway, and Trump is more focusing on the Pacific and China, believing that Europe is a power of the past.

Joris Verbeurgt