Chris Nineham: NATO’s disorientation gives us an opening to campaign to delegitimate it and the western alliance that it organises

Chris Nineham

Donald Trump has thrown NATO into confusion by confirming the withdrawal of nearly 10,000 US troops from Germany. Diplomatic as usual, he made the announcement in the media days before the German government was informed. It looks like he did not even bother to let the US ambassador to NATO in on his plans.

This is not the first time he has chucked a bomb into NATO’s internal politics. Earlier this year the US commander-in-chief called for the 70-year-old organisation set up as a bulwark to the Soviet Union to be renamed NATOME – a contraction of NATO with Middle East that he declared “beautiful” because it comprised “NATO plus me”. The call to refocus on the Middle East did not go down too well amongst NATO leaders unimpressed by the record of recent US interventions in the region.

Trump’s stated reason for the partial pull out from Germany is that the German government is not paying its way in the alliance. Germany spends 1.38% of its GDP on its military, well below the 2% target that the US has set for NATO members and less than half of the 3.8% spent by the US.

But there are other reasons for Trump’s tantrum. Partly he is playing to his base in the run up to what is going to be a difficult election. He got elected four years ago by self-presenting as an isolationist, calling NATO ‘obsolete’ on the campaign trail. Bringing thousands of troops home from Europe is a useful pre-election ploy.

But Trump clearly loves to act unilaterally, and he loves to disrupt in or out of election season. Surprise decisions to assassinate Iranian General Solemeini and to pull out of North Eastern Syria, allowing NATO member Turkey to move into the area, both caused consternation amongst US allies.

This behaviour is not just a product of a difficult personality. It exposes a deep uncertainty and division in Washington about the future direction of US foreign policy.

On the one hand the US’s main military concern now the rise of China. The US military have been pursuing a pivot to the East since the middle of the last decade and it is not clear that NATO can help much with that enterprise. On the other hand, some hawks in Washington are asking serious questions about NATO’s purpose and its continuing value for the US in general.

Trump’s fractious and unpredictable behaviour points to a wider problem for the alliance. The US administration’s lurching from isolationism to lashing out, and its growing anxiety about China are both signs of its waning influence in the world. The Trumpian response is making matters worse. As former senior US diplomat William Burns put it about Middle East policy:

“Trump’s pattern of non-reaction followed by over reaction has destroyed regional trust in him. He is corroding America’s reputation in ways that will be hard to mend.”

Trump’s antics during the COVID-19 crisis and the US failure to lead the global response to the pandemic has further undermined its credibility. NATO has historically been held together by the existence of Russia as a common and credible enemy together with the overwhelming power and influence of the US. As that declines other fissures in the alliance are bound to widen.

France’s President Macron has been pushing for an independent European force for some time, calling NATO “brain dead” and arguing for rapprochement with Russia. The newer Eastern European NATO members are pulling in the opposite direction, urging escalation against their Russian neighbour. The Polish government for example is lobbying for as many as possible of the troops withdrawn from Germany to be relocated inside its borders.

Meanwhile, Turkey is keen to exploit the weaknesses of the US in Middle East by reasserting its power in Syria and potentially beyond. Germany is caught in between, looking for better relations with Putin’s Russia but not keen on unnecessarily alienating the US.

Faced with a fracturing alliance NATO’s General Secretary, Jen Stoltenberg, is trying to unite the western powers in opposition to China. In a keynote speech earlier in June he tried to persuade the 30-nation alliance that China’s emergence as the world’s second-largest military spender demands a “more global approach”. “They’re coming closer to us in cyber space, we see them in the Arctic, in Africa, we see them investing in our critical infrastructure,” Mr Stoltenberg said of China, at an event hosted by two think-tanks, the Atlantic Council and the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “And they’re working more and more together with Russia. All of this has a security consequence for NATO allies.”

NATO’s disorientation gives us an opening to campaign to delegitimate it and the western alliance that it organises. Public opinion is turning against it on both sides of the Atlantic, and western military intervention has rarely been more unpopular. But the multipolar world that is emerging is fraught with the risk of further war.

18 Jun 2020

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