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US security commitments to NATO: Trump is just one factor among others

Obsolete, too expensive, unfair – Donald Trump has repeatedly and harshly criticised the NATO defence alliance. In a new SWP Research Paper, Marco Overhaus addresses the question of how credible the US security commitments to NATO still are and what this means for Europe. An interview with the author.

Point of View, 26.07.2019 Research Areas

Obsolete, too expensive, unfair – US President Donald Trump has repeatedly and harshly criticised the NATO defence alliance. In a new SWP Research Paper (available in German only, translation coming soon), Marco Overhaus addresses the question of how credible the US security commitments to NATO still are and what this means for Europe. An interview with the author.

You write in your SWP Research Paper that the credibility of US security commitments depends on three factors: the political will in Washington, the balance of military forces, especially in Eastern Europe, and concrete operational contributions from the United States. What about the political will in the United States to stand by its NATO partners when it matters?

Marco Overhaus: On the one hand, there is Trump, who has repeatedly questioned the value of NATO and other alliances in which the United States is a member. On the other hand, large sections of the Trump administration – including Trump’s foreign policy advisors, diplomats in the State Department, military officers in the Pentagon – as well as both parties in the US Congress clearly support NATO. However, one should not feel too comfortable: After all, in US security and defence policy, it is always the US president who counts.

In what cases does the president have the last word?

In the United States, lawyers are currently debating what the US president can and cannot do. The majority opinion seems to be that the president can do a great deal: He could, in an extreme case, pull the United States out of NATO without the consent of Congress; he could also order a complete or partial withdrawal of troops from Europe. And if there is a military crisis, for example in relations with Russia, then the president is basically the sole decision-maker because he is the commander in chief of the US armed forces.

The second factor on which you are establishing the credibility of US security commitments is the military balance of power, especially in eastern parts of Europe. How has that changed, and what does that mean for the United States?

As far as the military balance of power is concerned, especially on NATO’s north-eastern and eastern borders, Russia is now superior to NATO in many areas. This raises the costs and risks for the United States where it concerns commitments to the alliance, for example vis-à-vis the Baltic republics and Poland. However, it is not only the military balance of power that has changed, but also other important aspects of the European security environment. NATO’s size alone is a factor: When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it consisted of only 16 Member States. Today there are 29 countries – soon to be 30 – for which NATO, and thus also the United States, must offer security.

What conclusions are US decision-makers drawing from these increased costs and risks when it comes to their concrete financial and military contributions to NATO?

After Russia annexed the Crimea, the United States significantly increased the amount of money available for the so-called reinsurance of European allies: from $985 million in 2015 under Barack Obama to $6.5 billion under Trump in 2019. The United States has also strengthened its military presence in Europe, especially in Poland.

Does this mean that the United States is even more committed than before?

At the moment, yes. In the medium or long term, however, I have my doubts that it will remain that way. The structural foundations for the credibility of US security commitments in Europe, which have already been mentioned, have weakened. There are many signs that Trump is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather that he stands for longer-term domestic political developments in the United States, in the course of which the questioning – or even dismantlement – of alliances will no longer be sacrosanct.

You write that European NATO members assess the role of the United States in Europe very differently from one another. In what way?

Countries such as Germany, but also other Western European NATO states, tend to feel much less directly threatened by Russia. In a sense, they therefore can “afford” to have an understanding of US credibility that is primarily shaped by Trump’s statements. By contrast, states such as Poland or the Baltic countries judge the credibility of the United States above all by what it actually does on the ground, how many troops it sends, or how much money Washington makes available. They therefore have a much more positive view of US policy towards NATO, despite Trump’s hostile statements concerning alliances.

What does this mean for a common European security policy?

The European Union and the European NATO allies are threatened by political divisions, as there are three competing points of view. There are those who see the ambivalence of US policy towards NATO and conclude that Europe, in terms of security policy, must become more independent of Washington, or even strive for “strategic autonomy”. France has traditionally been a strong advocate of this view, and it is also gaining momentum in Germany. On the contrary, a second point of view stresses that we should commit ourselves even more strongly to the United States – a view held by many in Poland, the Baltic republics, and Romania. A third viewpoint, which for instance has significant support in the Czech Republic and Hungary, envisions neither strategic autonomy nor closer ties with the United States. Rather, the idea is to align more closely with Russia, at least in some strategic policy areas, such as energy policy.

How should political decision-makers in Europe deal with this diversity of viewpoints?

I think the starting point, however banal it may sound, should be for German decision-makers to acknowledge these different perspectives: The way we in this country predominantly view the United States under Trump is not common everywhere in Europe. Without this understanding, it will be very difficult in the future to pursue a consensual European policy towards the United States and the NATO alliance.

What direction do you think European defence should take?

It is important for Germany and Europe – within the framework of European defence cooperation – to focus more than they have to date on providing specific military capabilities for collective defence, especially in those areas where there are clear deficits and great dependencies on the United States. This applies, for example, to air defence, the provision of combat aircraft, missile defence, and the rapid deployment of army troops. Such a policy would kill two birds with one stone: Europe would become more independent in the event that the United States were to question its alliance commitments in the medium or long term. At the same time, however, actors in the United States who support NATO would also be strengthened domestically, for they could say: Europeans are also doing something.

Can European defence even become a real alternative to US security commitments?

In some areas, perhaps yes. With regard to nuclear deterrence, Europeans will remain dependent on the United States for the foreseeable future. But it would help if European NATO states were able to provide army units more quickly, for example to defend the Baltic countries or Poland, if needed.

The interview was conducted by Candida Splett of SWP’s online editorial team.