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The future of Nato hangs in the balance – whoever wins the presidency

Next week’s election may well be a key factor in deciding whether the US will continue in its traditional role of leading the West’s premier military alliance, writes Kim Sengupta

Friday 30 October 2020 12:35 GMT
Nato’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, and the US president, Donald Trump, at last year’s summit
Nato’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, and the US president, Donald Trump, at last year’s summit (AP)

Nato summits since the coming of Donald Trump have been tumultuous affairs. There has, predictably, been controversy, rancour and even a walkout by him. Presidents of the US, as the most powerful leaders of the alliance, have always been the centre of attention at the events – but never like this.

There were expectations of fireworks. Trump had attacked Nato during his 2016 election campaign, describing it as obsolete and a drain on America’s purse, while being remarkably accommodating about its main adversary, Russia, signalling, for example, that he would be prepared to accept Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

The accusation of Kremlin links, which have dogged the president, inevitably came up three years ago at the first Nato meeting after his election. It had just been disclosed that Michael Flynn, the president’s national security adviser, had held secret meetings with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, and one of the topics of conversation had been the lifting of sanctions imposed on Moscow over its involvement in Ukraine’s strife.  

Western officials saw that Trump defended Flynn, who had just resigned after revelations about the meeting and was later to be convicted under the Mueller investigation, twitting that he was a “victim of political assassination”.

James Mattis, defence secretary and former US marines general, responded testily to questions about Flynn: “Here’s the bottom line, ladies and gentlemen. I’m brought in to be the secretary of defence. I give the president advice on the use of military force. I maintain good relations, strong relations … and so military-to-military relations with other ministries of defence around the world. And frankly, this has no impact … It doesn't change my message at all. And who’s on the president’s staff is who I will work with.”

There was perceived wisdom at the time that Mattis would be among senior figures at the administration who would keep any excesses by the new president in check. They all left one by one. According to Bob Woodward in his book Fear: Trump in the White House,  Mattis himself could not wait to get out of Trump’s “crazytown”.

In June this year, Mattis wrote in The Atlantic magazine: “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our constitution … Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort."

Mattis even evoked the spirit between the US and European allies in fighting Hitler’s Germany – the partnership which later evolved into Nato – to combat what was unfolding in America. “The Nazi slogan for destroying us … was ‘divide and conquer’. Our American answer is ‘in union there is strength’. We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis – confident that we are better than our politics,” he said.

The criticism by Mattis illustrated the extraordinary level of division in American politics and society and also the sheer animosity between the president and the military and intelligence services. Some of the most highly decorated former commanders, including General John Allen, Admiral Mike Mullen and Admiral William McRaven, have been among those to condemn Trump.

This is an extraordinary situation for America’s western allies in Nato to behold in bemusement and cope with. And there is little doubt in Canada and across the Atlantic that what happens to Nato in the future will depend greatly on whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden wins the election.

Some problems, however, will remain whoever is in the White House afterwards.

At the same Nato meeting during which Mattis maintained that it would be business as usual under the new presidency, he told the alliance leaders behind closed doors : “I owe it to you to give you clarity on the political reality in the United States and to state the fair demand from my country’s people in concrete terms ... If your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to the alliance, each of your capitals needs to show its support for our common defence.”

James Mattis (second from right), the former US secretary of defence (AP)

Trump is certainly not the first American president to demand that others in Nato spend more on defence, 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”.

Libya 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.

Trump demanded at the 2018 Nato summit that member states should double the 2 per cent target of their budget spent on defence to 4 per cent. Critics pointed out that the US itself was spending 3.5 per cent of its budget on defence. But the fact remains that it was still a huge amount in real terms compared with other countries.

During this election campaign, Trump has claimed that he was responsible for Nato spending $130bn more since he took office. Member states, in fact, started spending more during the Ukraine war;  but it is also the case that the president’s repeated lambasting has forced alliance governments towards spending more on defence.

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, has focused on trying to keep relations with the president amicable. He backed Trump taking credit for the $130bn addition. He also brokered a deal in which the US contribution to Nato’s $2.5bn funding for shared projects has been reduced from 22 per cent to 16 per cent, the same as that of Germany – a country which has been the particular target of Trump’s ire recently, and one with a much smaller economy.

Nato’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, and the then US vice-president, Joe Biden, at the annual Munich Security Conference in 2015 (Reuters)

Trump has claimed that the drive for other member states to spend more would dry up if the Democrats win. “Tell Biden that Nato has taken total advantage of him and President Obama. We were paying for almost all of Nato. We are protecting countries. Those countries have to protect themselves with us. They have to make a contribution,” he told reporters outside the White House.

What will happen if Trump wins the election? One school of thought among critics is that he would go on to create disruption and undermine the core values and strengths of Nato in the guise of reform.

The president has already suggested that countries outside Europe should be allowed to join. After ordering the assassination of the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, he recommended that Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia should become members. He also floated the idea that Brazil, under its right-wing populist president, Joao Bolsonaro, could become part of the alliance.

Retired Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, US ambassador to Nato from 2013-17, told Politico: “It is likely that he would persist in disrupting, both politically and militarily ... His announced intention to remove US forces from Europe [without leaving the alliance] would become reality, thereby demonstrating withdrawal of US commitment and reducing Nato’s deterrence posture.”

Some hold that Trump may leave Nato altogether in his second term. John Bolton, his now estranged former national security advisor, claims that there is a real possibility of the US pulling out with the absence of people like him persuading Trump to stay.

“It wasn’t that we convinced him that Nato is actually a pretty good alliance, but that he just saw he couldn’t go across the line and actually call for withdrawal … Once he’s re-elected, that political guardrail, if it doesn’t disappear entirely, is substantially diminished,” Bolton said recently.

“There will be fewer people around, as there are fewer people now, like myself and like some others, who would say, ‘It’s a very bad idea to withdraw from Nato.’”

Bolton made similar predictions about Trump abandoning Nato in his book The Room Where it Happened. This and other warnings by security officials have been seized on by Democrats.

“If I lose and he gets elected, you will remember the things that I said will turn out to be right… That is, if he gets elected, there will be no Nato”, Joe Biden said at one of his fundraising events. In an interview with CNN, the Democrat challenger accused Trump of “threatening Nato” and “stiff-arming our friends”.

He added: “What bothers me abroad is: the idea that we can go it alone with no alliances for the next 20 or 30 years is a disaster. I come out of a generation where we were trying to be the policemen of the world. We can't go in every place. We need allies. He is absolutely dissing them. He's embracing thugs. He’s embracing Kim Jong-un, who is a thug. He's embracing Putin, who is a flat dictator.”

There have been calls from within Nato that the European members of the alliance should put together a structure to look after its interests.

Emmanuel Macron, Donald Trump and Angela Merkel at the 2019 Nato summit (Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Emmanuel Macron has been particularly vocal in this. Trump left the Nato summit in Britain last year early, without holding the keynote press conference he was scheduled to give for the 70th anniversary of the alliance. He walked out, it was said, in umbrage at a leaked video in which Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau – with Princess Anne alongside them – were seen to be apparently mocking him.

Macron’s press conference afterwards was twice as long as that of Johnson, the host, as he expounded on the future of Nato. The French president had caused controversy before the summit by describing the organisation as “brain dead” in an interview, pointing to what he considered its lack of strategic vision. Trump’s exit left the stage to him.

Macron wants the organisation to prepare for less American engagement, a block on enlargement, more European political integration and a reset on relations with Russia. There has been strong opposition to this approach from some other members, especially from the eastern European and Baltic states.

As well as disagreements about its future shape, Nato also faces other problems. Three members – Turkey, Greece and France – are involved in naval confrontation in the Mediterranean. Three states – Turkey, Italy and France – are backing opposing sides in the Libyan civil war. Turkey sent troops into Syrian territory where the forces of three other Nato members – the US, Britain and France – were present.

At the same time, hanging over the contentious issue of the defence budget is the massive economic downturn due to the coronavirus. There is deep uncertainty, for example, about what form the UK’s “integrated review” of defence and security will take, given the monetary constraints brought by the pandemic and, indeed, whether the review will take place at all.

It is highly unlikely that the alliance would be able to address all these issues without the active participation of the US. The election next week may well be a key factor in deciding whether America will continue in its traditional role of leading the west’s premier military alliance.

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