Relax, NATO Isn’t Going Anywhere

US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg before a NATO meeting in Brussels. Photo via U.S. Department of State.

By Sara Bjerg Moller.

Donald Trump’s election caused consternation at home and abroad. Outside of the United States, perhaps nowhere is the shock of his victory more keenly felt than amongst our longstanding allies in Europe. No doubt European leaders were still grappling with the aftermath of this development and possible ramifications when they met last month for the final EU Council meeting of the year to discuss the general security situation.

During the campaign, Trump’s anti-NATO rhetoric was met by many with a mixture of scorn and amusement. Now, many longtime transatlantic security watchers are sounding the alarm. Lost in all this, however, are several positive developments which point not only to the staying power of the collective defense norm but the wider transatlantic security relationship as well.

We’ve Been Here Before

The President-elect is hardly the first American leader to criticize Europeans for not contributing more to their own security. Indeed, the contours of this debate are as old as the transatlantic alliance itself. Since the organization’s creation in 1949, every US president has complained about unfair “burden sharing” and the need for other members to pay more for their defense.

Even Eisenhower, who as NATO’s first military commander epitomizes the transatlantic relationship more than any other, complained of the disparities within the alliance. In the middle of his second term, Eisenhower confided to a member of his staff that he had spent five years trying to get the State Department to put the facts of life before the Europeans. NATO’s European members, he went on to note, were close to “making a sucker out of Uncle Sam.”

In 2011, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made headlines when he used his farewell address to rebuke European allies for failing “to devote the necessary resources…to be serious and capable partners in their own defense…”. The message that Europe needs to spend more in its own defense is therefore hardly a new one.

To be sure, Trump’s rhetoric and his insinuation that the US might not honor the collective defense pledge enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is new. It is also, as commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have already noted, deeply alarming. Yet, somewhat ironically, Trump’s rhetoric may have the (un)intended effect of spurring European countries toward action (supporters of the President-elect will likely claim this was their intended goal all along).

Grounds for Optimism

The early signs are already there. On November 30, 2016, European Union officials announced plans to increase military spending for the first time since 2010. EU governments pledged to increase funding of the European Defence Agency, the body responsible for acquisition and defense research, by 1.6 percent. Though hardly a windfall, the decision marks an important milestone.

Equally encouraging is the fact that the press release announcing the spending increase noted that the funds would be used not only for capability improvements – such as joint investments in drone technology and bulk buy helicopters to reduce costs and enhance interoperability among forces – but also for research and development.

The former is important given the alliance’s longstanding standardization and interoperability problems. Despite much progress in recent years through NATO programs like Smart Defence, significant challenges to interoperability, especially in communication and information systems, remain. Any attempt by European governments to rectify these problems by investing in “common development of technologies and equipment” should therefore be welcomed.

The EU’s decision to allocate a separate funding stream toward research and technology is equally significant. The new proposal calls for EUR 90 million (roughly $95 million) to be spent between now and 2020 on research, with plans for this figure to grow to EUR 500 million per year thereafter. Of course, there is a long way from merely pledging additional spending to the actual allocation of funds. Even so, the EU’s announcement is grounds for optimism. As a senior Obama administration official noted, “It is no secret that we’ve been asking them to do this for years.” 

Also encouraging is the fact that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker chose to highlight space capabilities and cyber security as funding priorities, areas in which US officials have long urged for improvements. By prioritizing these areas, Europe is signaling to the new administration that it is committed to retooling for 21st century threats.

Look to the North

Alongside these developments, there are other indications that European countries remain committed to the collective defense ideal. Sweden, for example, is currently in the midst of a national debate over whether to seek NATO membership. For years, the Swedes preferred to remain outside of the formal alliance, favoring bilateral cooperation through membership in the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program instead. In recent years, however, Sweden has been one of NATO’s “most active and effective partners,” contributing to missions in both Afghanistan and Libya.

The Finns too may be warming to the idea of closer ties (if not outright membership) with NATO. Earlier this month, the Finnish government announced its support for a new EU-NATO “hybrid” warfare center intended to address both conventional as well as unconventional security challenges in the region. Dubbed a “center of excellence,” the center will be based in Helsinki but house both EU and NATO officials, including personnel from the United States.

The announcement follows the signing of a bilateral security agreement between the US and Finland on October 7, 2016. The agreement paves the way for joint military training and greater information sharing between Helsinki and Washington. A similar protocol on defense cooperation was concluded by the Finnish and UK governments in July. In June, the Swedish government signed its own statement of intent with the Pentagon.

No doubt challenges still lie beyond the horizon, especially if the Trump Administration seeks to transform its campaign rhetoric into policies (reports late last year that members of the transition team were trying to oust the US-appointed NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller are troubling). But, amidst all the alarm, there are also grounds for cautious optimism. Far from ushering in the end of the transatlantic security relationship, Trump’s campaign rhetoric coupled with Putin’s aggressive tactics may – at least for now – have prompted European governments to double down on the collective defense norm. Chalk it up to that oldest of realpolitik tenets – the balance of power – or, if you must, the lasting power of bureaucracies, but NATO’s days are far from numbered.

Sara Bjerg Moller is an Assistant Professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University and a regular contributor at Political Violence @ a Glance. 

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