NATO summit proved to be G-7 2.0
US President Donald Trump is on a visit to Europe. He met with NATO leaders and the military brass in Brussels, is visiting England — for consultations with Her Majesty’s government and tea with Queen Elizabeth II — and Scotland, for a round or two of golf. Then it is time for his long-awaited summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
And, as always, where President Trump goes, controversy follows.
The headlines of his interview with UK tabloid The Sun, in which he lambasted his host Theresa May for her attitude toward Brexit, have overshadowed the perhaps-more-significant upset at NATO.
Trump has long had a bee in his bonnet over the defense spending of his European allies. While the US spends 3.5 percent of its budget on defense, European nations spend less. Some much less. Only the UK, Greece, Estonia, Latvia and Poland spend 2 percent or more of their GDP on defense. Germany stands at a deplorable 1.2 percent, but has budgeted an 80 percent increase until 2024, which will bring it in line with NATO guidelines. The alliance is working toward having 30 ships, 30 land battalions, and 30 warplane squadrons deployable at 30 days’ notice.
The president has a point when he asks his allies to share the financial burden more equitably. However, most member states — especially Germany — “got the memo” and are working toward that goal. The former First Sea Lord (head of the UK Navy) and former Parliamentary Undersecretary of State at the Home Office, Adm. Lord West, said: “President Trump’s way of doing business is unusual, but he has an uncanny ability to speak truth to power. We all have known for a long time that continental European allies have not been investing sufficiently in their armed forces, except for France. If he (Trump) gets them to move on this issue he has achieved something.”
The real question for the US president is how he wants to position the US globally.
Trump’s meeting with his NATO colleagues was tumultuous to say the least. He lambasted spending. He attacked Germany, in particular, for importing a lot of its oil and gas from Russia. According to newspapers, he quipped: “It certainly doesn’t seem to make sense that they paid billions of dollars to Russia and now we need to defend them against Russia.”
According to Eurostat, Germany imports roughly 50 percent to 75 percent of its natural gas and 25 percent to 50 percent of its crude oil from Russia. The new South Stream pipeline is a particular thorn in the president’s side. It will transport Russian gas via the Baltic Sea to Germany, circumventing the traditional transit countries of Poland and Ukraine.
The US has every interest in the prosperity of its allies, especially when it demands they spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. These economies cannot function without reliable supplies of energy. Natural gas other than LNG is a regional resource and proximity to markets is pivotal. Therefore, Russia, which boasts the world’s largest natural gas reserves, has been and will remain a logical point of origin for German gas supplies. Gazprom actually started exporting gas to Germany and Western Europe during the “Ostpolitk” of Willy Brandt in the 1970s — the height of the Cold War.
Wednesday’s meetings were tumultuous. Still, in the end NATO issued a communique which acknowledged a “dangerous, unpredictable and fluid security environment.” It went on to mention “Russia’s aggressive actions” and state that “instability and continuing crises across the Middle East and North Africa are fueling terrorism.” The allies also “reaffirmed unwavering commitment to all aspects of the Defense Investment Pledge agreed at the 2014 Wales Summit.” (Read spending 2 percent of GDP on defense.)
But if they sighed a sigh of relief once the document was signed, NATO leaders were wrong. As he did in Quebec, Trump turned things on their head when he suddenly announced that leaders needed, and had agreed, to spend 4 percent of their GDP on defense.
Once again, he had moved the goalposts after an agreement had been reached. Looking at the UK situation, Adm. Lord West said in Donald Trump’s defense that 2 percent of GDP was “in all likelihood insufficient to support the country’s capability and the various commitments of the armed forces overseas.”
The saga continued, with French President Emmanuel Macron contradicting Trump, claiming that NATO allies had not agreed to the 4 percent goal. The talks apparently got so heated at the summit that Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, only allowed heads of state and one aide into the meeting on the second day.
Trump may have spoken truth to power and it might have been necessary to cajole European NATO allies to pay up. However, language and behavior matter.
Europe is an old ally of the US. Many of these NATO countries have sent their sons and daughters to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with US forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and other theaters of war. EU Council President Donald Tusk had a point when he told Trump that he had reliable friends in Europe and that he should value them, because true friends were hard to come by.
The implicit threat of having the US resign from NATO will embolden Russia, and that cannot be in the long-term interest of the US. It will also make many European leaders more susceptible to advances from China, the emerging global power. Trade disputes are also playing a major part on that front.
The real question for the US president is how he wants to position the US globally. He risks that China, Russia and co. can increase their respective power bases at the expense of America’s standing in the world.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert.