Tantrums, insults, accusations and recriminations marked Nato summits at the time of Donald Trump’s presidency. There was even a walkout from him at the 70th anniversary of the Alliance at a perceived slight. No one had never seen his like before, and there was clear relief among most leaders and officials at his departure.
There was the inevitability of friction with Trump’s arrival at the White House. He had repeatedly attacked Nato during its 2016 election campaign, calling it obsolete and a drain on America’s resources. He continued in the same vein during the meetings he attended, threatening at times to pull the US out of the organisation altogether, while at the same time being remarkably uncritical of its main adversary, Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Nato survived Donald Trump. And now, under Joe Biden, and the return to American multilateralism, it is supposedly due to reaffirm what are meant to be its core values with a common stance in the defence of Europe by an alliance of democracies , although, of course, with Erdogan’s Turkey and Viktor Orban’s Hungary not all the members are liberal democracies .
There is certain symmetry between Biden’s first Nato conference in Brussels on 14 June and the one Trump attended three years ago. Each itinerary included a visit to Britain and a summit with Putin. But the approaches taken by the two Presidents were, as to be expected, very different.
Trump criticised Theresa May for not going for a hard enough Brexit. The Nato summit that year was particularly acrimonious with the US President lashing out, in particular, at Angela Merkel. His summit with Putin was noteworthy by his public cosying-up to and taking the side of the Russian President against those of the US intelligence services on allegations of Kremlin interference in the US election.
Biden has started his journey in the UK, for the G7 summit, with a warning to Boris Johnson not to imperil the Good Friday Agreement by his government’s confrontation with the EU on the Irish Protocol, a direct result of the hard Brexit which has followed.
Biden’s meeting with Putin, who he once charged was a “killer,” is certain to be far different than the one Trump had. Trump was accused of being the Muscovian Candidate for the White House in 2016: Biden has accused the Russian leader of trying to manipulate the 2020 polls as well, insisting “he’ll pay a price, you’ll see shortly”.
Biden, before flying to Europe, wrote in the Washington Post: “We are standing united to address Russia’s challenge to European security, starting with aggression in Ukraine. And there will be no doubt about the resolve of the United States to defend our democratic values, which we cannot separate from our interests.”
The issue of European security connects directly to the US President’s interaction with Nato, and the robust stance he signalled on Ukraine contrasts with that of Trump who had stated that he was prepared to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Ukraine and Nato has already become a contentious issue after the Kyiv government stated recently in its official website that the US supported a “Nato Membership Action Plan” for Ukraine. The claim, following a phone call between the country’s President Volodymr Zelensky and Biden, offered a pathway for joining the Alliance.
The claim was removed earlier this week from the Ukraine government website. But that did not stop Putin from accusing the West of trying to use Ukrainians as “bargaining chips or cannon fodder” and warning against Nato spreading further to Russia’s borders.
In reality there is significant opposition within Nato to further expansion, with Georgia, another country which had a recent war with Russia, the other possible candidate for joining. Former Soviet Union states in Eastern Europe broadly back extending membership, but there are deep reservations among Western European countries.
Soon after Trump lost the election, the US military halted his order to pull troops out of Germany, an act which was widely viewed as an extension of the feud with Merkel. The move was endorsed by the incoming administration and helped reassure Nato members of US commitment.
Biden met Jens Stoltenberg at the start of the week after which the Nato Secretary-General spoke of common ground on strengthening the Alliance, investing more on defence and confronting challenges ranging from climate change to Russia and China.
But behind the bonhomie and Biden’s advantage at not being Trump there are underlying problematic issues.
The US administration, which is carrying out a pivot to the AsiaPacific, wants Nato to join in confronting the increasingly aggressive posture of China. Some member countries have responded such as Britain sending its new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, with a supporting fleet, to East Asian waters. But not all allies are happy with this : some of them not wanting to risk their economic ties with Beijing.
Stoltenberg, while saying that “Nato does not see China as an adversary,” added “ but we must be clear-eyed about the challenges China poses. It already has the second largest defence budget and the biggest navy. And it is seeking to control critical infrastructure in our countries and around the world. But Beijing does not share our values”.
Critics of Nato say that seeking a broader role overseas is the organisation trying to justify its existence with its main purpose, defence in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, now over. Rising tensions with Russia, they say, will not turn into open conflict. Nato, it is claimed, need to “go outside Europe, to make sure it does not go out of business”.
But there is worry in the organisation that not showing solidarity on China may lead to Washington focusing on allies elsewhere.
Successive US administrations have sought to bring in India as a strategic partner and counterweight to China. Delhi has been reluctant in the past to acquiesce, but the recent border clashes with China in the Himalayan border has been among factors which now appear to be leading to a change of mind. The resumption of the Malabar naval exercises between the navies of America, Japan, India and Australia, and attempts to strengthen the ‘Quadrilateral’ group of these states, are seen as signals of this.
Then there is the fundamental issue of defence spending by Nato states. Trump was certainly not the first American President to demand that others members spend more, and he is not going to be the last. There has been repeated public criticism from both Republican and Democrat administrations about what is viewed as the US carrying an unfair share of the burden.
Robert Gates, Defence Secretary under Barack Obama, warned nine years ago in his farewell speech to Nato that America’s military alliance with Europe faced a “dim, if not dismal future” because allies were “willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defence budgets”.
Gates raised the issue of Libya, where Nato was carrying out a bombing campaign at the time, pointing out that many member states were not able to participate because “the military capabilities aren’t there”.
The Libya war was an example of Nato’s limitations without the US. The intervention to depose Muammar Gaddafi was instigated primarily at the behest of the British prime minister, David Cameron, and French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Washington was initially reluctant to participate, but the European powers soon discovered that the airstrikes could not continue without urgent resupplies of American weaponry. That situation would be the same if Nato was to launch another prolonged campaign now without large-scale US support.
Some Nato leaders, with Emmanuel Macron, want the organisation to prepare for less American engagement and more political integration as well as a reset on relations with Russia.
The French President declared two years ago that a “ brain death of Nato” was unfolding . Europe was on “ the edge of a precipice” and would be “ no longer in control of our destiny” unless it started to think of itself as a geopolitical power.”
There has been opposition to this from some other members, especially from the eastern European and Baltic states, and Macron’s assessment came while Trump was regularly attacking Nato.
Things have changed with the coming of Biden, but are there are any guarantees that this would last? Some senior Nato officials warn of the real possibility of the return of Trump to the White House after the 2024 election. The future shape of the Alliance may change whatever happens at Joe Biden’s first summit as President.
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