The transatlantic alliance is strained. That's a problem.
NATO matters because it is critical to the U.S. strategy of keeping World War III at bay. The Allies started the North Atlantic Treaty Organization at the end of World War II for this very purpose. In the years leading up to World War II and during the war, Nazi Germany invaded more than 20 countries—but not all at once. They started small. First, they annexed German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia right on their border. Then they moved on to Austria. Other countries watched and stayed out of the fray. Then came Poland and with it the start of the bloodiest war in history.
Because of NATO, allied countries no longer stand alone when attacked. If one member of the Alliance comes under attack, all the other members promise to come to its aid and defense. This has only ever happened once in NATO's history—after terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. That's right. European Allies came to the defense of the United States.
So, in the spirit of the Alliance, Outrider asked our colleagues at the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) to reflect on NATO and the Trump-Putin Summit. Here’s what they had to say:
Trump in Europe
Trump's disruptive style is at odds with the nature of European institutions. By design, these institutions focus on forging stability, trust, and resilience. This carefully crafted status quo among dozens of nations with differing interests fosters democracy, freedom, and rule of law.
Trump turns all this on its head. He challenges the status quo because he views security and democracy as secondary to hard economic bargaining.
Trump’s whirlwind tour of Europe followed a pattern: hostility and aggressive verbal attack, followed by a pull-back and reassurance. It began in Brussels at the NATO summit where he lambasted Allies for not spending enough on defense and questioned the credibility of the Alliance itself. He criticized Germany for its energy dependence on Russia and its Chancellor for immigration decisions that he said changed the fabric of Europe’s identity. Then before leaving, he said, "I believe in NATO."
In Britain, he used an interview with the country's largest newspaper to criticize the beleaguered Prime Minister. A day later Trump reversed his criticism and accused the newspaper of fake news.
Next, he described the European Union as a "foe" of the United States before flying to Helsinki to meet with Russian President Putin. At a controversial press conference in Helsinki, President Trump refused to confront Putin over Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. He appeared to put greater faith in Russia’s denial than in the overwhelming conclusions of his own intelligence community. Trump said, "I think we’ve all been foolish. I think we’re all to blame."
This extreme approach damages trust in the established order within Europe. It is also profoundly dangerous considering the stakes involved.
Memories from World War II and the subsequent Cold War remain strong in Europe. There is a fear among many Europeans of being too hard on Russia and forcing them into an arms race or a direct conflict. Any military confrontation risks a nuclear war, and the first targets would be in Europe.
There is also a fear of appeasement which leads others in Europe to draw hard lines. If bad behavior goes unpunished—or even rewarded as some saw in Helsinki—the fear is that it will embolden President Putin and make conflict more likely as he pushes his position.
Even so, the Alliance is suffering from a confidence problem rooted in Trump’s willingness to shake its foundations.
The recent invasions of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) and the Novichok poisonings in Britain (2018) have convinced most Europeans that Russia is up to no good and is a threat to stability. Even so, the Alliance is suffering from a confidence problem rooted in Trump’s willingness to shake its foundations.
From the other side, Russia has a deep distrust of the United States and its allies. This is fueled by grievances over their treatment over the last thirty years. Russians feel surrounded and betrayed over earlier promises and agreements with NATO in the 1990s. Putin’s opposition to the United States and its allies is very popular in Russia, as are the recent invasions of neighboring countries.
Despite the dramatic news headlines, the Allies survived the summit and continue NATO’s regular work of the organization. From the perspective of most people in Europe, that means containing the suspect ambitions of Russia.
Summit with Putin
The summit served the interests of both men involved, but it failed to make any concrete progress on important arms control and crisis management issues. It also failed to resolve the security disputes between the two nations. To most European observers, President Trump’s claim that the relationship with Russia improved substantially as a result of their private, two-hour conversation appeared absurd. President Putin made the most of the optics showing the two as equal masters of a turbulent world. Putin also emphasized the need for pragmatic arrangements in the interests of stability. From the perspective of central and eastern Europeans in particular, this was not welcome.
The U.S. media focused upon Trump’s choice to believe Putin over his own intelligence services. But, Europeans believe they have experienced Russian influence over their elections for some time. The lesson for Europeans was that this U.S. President could not be relied upon to side with Europeans in any conflict with Russia—a blow to the bedrock of the Alliance with long-lasting repercussions.
If these trends continue, a new and terrifying nuclear arms race could become inevitable.
Arms control experts have long worried about established arrangements governing nuclear weapons crumbling. Dialogue between the Russians and NATO was already bad long before President Trump was elected. It is now at its worst since the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. If these trends continue, a new and terrifying nuclear arms race could become inevitable. We already see evidence of this happening. Putin unveiled several new nuclear weapon systems in his State of the Union address, and the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review called for new low-yield nuclear weapons.
It appears likely that President Trump will go to the wire in his negotiations with the Russians over extension of the current strategic arms treaty (New START) that expires in 2021. He has already said this is a bad Treaty for the United States, presumably to extract concessions from Russia.
Europeans are starting to conclude from the Trump Administration’s disruptive approach in all multilateral institutions across all sectors that the United States is no longer a reliable ally. They have discovered through the NATO Summit and Iran Deal negotiations that they cannot appease Trump.
In the absence of clear U.S. leadership, Europeans are looking for alternative sources of leadership.
It is critical for global security that relations with Russia improve. This requires dialogue, understanding, and a readiness to bring more empathy into the conversation. Europeans generally do not see President Trump’s behavior in this frame. They see him as an inconsistent, disruptive force that places short-term economic and budgetary objectives in front of global stability and consistency. It is deeply disturbing to witness established institutions and arms control agreements thrown out the window without any coherent plan to replace them.