For many years now, successive American administrations have made no secret of their frustration with how little most NATO allies spend on their militaries, leaving the United States with a disproportionately large share of the bill for the joint defense. James Mattis, the new Secretary of Defense, recently expressed much the same frustration in remarks delivered in Brussels. Recently, President Donald Trump went even further warning that unless the allies paid up, America might reduce its commitment. We interviewed Prof. Garret Martin (American University) and Prof. Matthew Zierler (James Madison College, Michigan State University) on the issue of "burden-sharing" and the future strategic developments of the almost seventy-year old Transatlantic relationship.
Compared to previous statements, in yesterday’s speech Trump resorted to a more supportive wording on NATO, finally acknowledging the role of the alliance after having previously defined it as obsolete. Yet, the issue of financial obligations within NATO turned up again. Although calling on NATO members to raise defense spending to at least 2% of their economic output is not news in US Administrations, what was striking in Trump’s statements was the tone and his insistence on that point. How much is his Administration going to be uncompromising on this?
Garret Martin (M): The Trump administration is likely to be very uncompromising when it comes to the 2% defense spending commitment. It is after all following in the footsteps of previous administrations and Trump made a big deal about Allies having to pay their fair share during the campaign. The devil, however, will be in the timeline. NATO member states already pledged at the 2014 Wales summit to move “towards the 2% guideline within a decade”. But it remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will be so patient. Will it demand immediate results or be content with further signs that the allies are moving in the right direction? Additionally, will the Trump administration pay close attention to how the Allies are spending their money on defense or will it just want to keep up the appearances? You could easily imagine NATO member states using creative accounting to show they are meeting the 2% threshold and placate Washington.
Matthew Zierler (Z): The Trump administration is not the first government to make such remarks, and others have been harsh in the past. Most U.S. officials have been making this call for burden sharing ever since the end of the Cold War. Former Secretary of Defense Gates went to Brussels in 2011 that made this argument quite pointedly and seemed to get a significant reaction in Europe. Similarly, the NATO summit in Wales last year had this as the major issue to be addressed. It is unclear if he will be uncompromising on this. It really depends on what his advisors suggest and how much he listens to them. Military and diplomatic officials generally support NATO and don't want to lose the United States' connection to our very close allies. As there still seems to be a Russian threat, there is perhaps even greater reason to make sure the alliance is strong.
Beyond the issue of burden sharing, what other obstacles lie ahead in the transatlantic alliance? Within NATO there are different priorities, as exemplified by divergent stances in relation to Russia: how would this affect the most pressing dossiers, like Syria and Ukraine?
M: The transatlantic alliance has, and always has had, its fair share of obstacles and divergent stances on both sides of the Atlantic. And that would have been also true if Hillary Clinton had won the election. Syria, Ukraine and Russia will continue to challenge Europe and the US, but the greater risk might be the gradual erosion of transatlantic solidarity. A more inward looking Europe and a more insular US could have a very detrimental impact on preserving a weakening international liberal order.
Z: You have outlined the major issues. Defense of the Baltic states is key as they are all NATO members (unlike Ukraine or Syria). NATO needs to show strength to deter any Russian incursion in the Baltics. There are two bilateral issues that might have an impact. Turkey seems more disconnected from Europe in recent years even though it has been part of NATO for a long time. To the degree they are engaged in Syria and whatever Russia does, it could have an impact on the alliance. In addition, it is yet to be seen how Brexit might impact the internal workings of NATO. Obviously, the EU and NATO are separate, but there is collaboration and one can imagine that basic political disputes could make agreement in the alliance more challenging. I don't predict that will be the case, but it is possible.
After her visit to the US in February, HR/VP Mogherini stressed that we are entering a new phase in the transatlantic relationship, denoting the emergence of different positions on a number of issues. Considering Trump’s praise to Brexit, what will be Trump’s line of action towards the European Union and is this going to strengthen or weaken the EU?
M: It is rather challenging to assess what policy Trump will pursue toward the EU and whether it will strengthen or weaken the latter. First, it is hard to decipher any great consistency in Trump’s opinions, as he has alternated between hot and cold when it comes to the EU in recent statements. He praised Brexit and called the EU a vehicle for German domination in January, before describing the EU wonderful in an interview last week with Reuters. Second, Trump also has not yet appointed many of the senior officials who will work on a day to day basis with Europe. So that makes predictions about Trump’s approach to the EU rather difficult. As for whether or not Trump will strengthen or weaken the EU, it is important not to overstate his impact. He may embolden populist movements in Europe, and other centrifugal forces, but the fate of the EU will be far more dependent on the outcome of the key elections this year in the Netherlands, France and Germany.
Z: This is hard to know. The United States has been a strong proponent of European integration ever since the community began. It has been in our interest to have a strong, united, and prosperous Europe. I don't see the special relationship between the U.S. and UK changing much especially given the changing political situation in the UK. I do wonder what might happen to the TTIP given Trump's action on TTP and his position on renegotiating NAFTA. So if he sees the EU purely as an economic arrangement that the United States interacts with, it could have an impact on the relationship. I also think domestic political issues within a number of European countries, like the strength of more right-wing parties in places like France, Hungary, and the Netherlands will influence Brussels and then, in turn, its relationship with the EU.