What Donald Trump should tell the other members of Nato
President Trump has correctly and consistently identified an abrogation of responsibilities by America’s European allies when it comes to burden sharing in the Nato alliance. This week’s Nato dinner will give him an opportunity to demand concrete change from America’s allies to address this imbalance and show clear solidarity.
Nato, the primary multilateral pillar in the defence of Western civilisation, is an alliance born of the need to defend the West against the Soviet Union. Following the USSR’s demise, Nato’s existential mission has been lost in a sea of operations and activities lacking a unified vision. As a result the organisation today is less a potent force for collective defence and more a framework of coalitions of the willing acting as a "peace enforcement" provider. Thus, since 1989, the organisation has been not only less than the sum of its parts, with uneven member state engagement, but has also opted out of the major strategic issue of our time – radical Islamic terrorism.
Worse, even on its traditional ground, Nato has become weak as a keeper of peace in Europe. Europeans, enjoying the peace dividend paid for by America’s export of security – so often unacknowledged or even maligned by key Nato allies and their publics – thus dismantled their defence budgets and stalled any modernisation of their shrinking armed forces.
Yet signs are that President Trump now has a historic window of opportunity. Last year, Nato allies agreed they needed to reverse defence cuts. The proposed increases are insufficient but a move in the right direction. Russia has helped to mobilise Nato members and Europe’s citizens are increasingly concerned with radical Islam, which they see as a problem far exceeding a simple law enforcement dimension. This growing perception of risks among the public will make it easier for leaders to strengthen national and collective military capabilities.
Though Nato may face some headwind from the idea of a European Union force, there are no compelling figures who might lead an obstructionist camp. Most importantly, Europe knows what a friend it has in America and that the burden sharing is beyond unequal. Above all, Europe knows it is out of excuses when it comes to its own defence.
President Trump can harness these realities by making clear that America values the alliance, subject to certain basic principles to be respected by members without exception. Such principles must be based on an understanding that each member has a collective responsibility towards all other members and must get clear benefits to their own defence posture in return. As the military backbone of the West, Nato must be based on a fundamentally solid political commitment by members, expressed in clear, measurable military obligations.
This in turn must lead to a vastly sharper focus for its role in countering the decisive threats of our time. Nato must put the battle against radical Islamic terror at the core of its vision. It is a values-based alliance, confronted with an archipelago of terror threats across multiple theatres that demands a military response in addition to the intelligence and policing work necessary to keep domestic publics safe now.
Nato allies must also finally invest in their own defence properly. Attaining national defense expenditures of 2 per cent of GDP is a basic commitment. But this aside, Nato has to be efficient in military terms, so the increase in defense expenditures must be real, not the product of fiscal or budgetary engineering. Further, the goal of 2 per cent must be achieved in the short term, not in a decade;. And the increase must be oriented towards the acquisition of new capabilities, not personnel or more military headquarters. These defense expenditures should be reviewed periodically and be assessed in terms of outputs: deployability is more important than raw numbers.
To project force with strategic impact Nato cannot rely on coalitions of the willing. Decisions are taken by consensus. Once done, all allies must carry the operational burden. Yet to meet the challenges of today, Nato will have to expand its concept. Moreover, if it is to be a force in combating the threat of radical Islam, it must acknowledge the lack of a distinction between the domestic and foreign spheres as dramatically demonstrated in multiple Western capitals. Thus, with the line between homeland defence and foreign operations increasingly blurred, Nato meetings must account for this by including the relevant political decision makers such as Homeland Security or Interior Ministry Secretaries of State.
Equally, the alliance must adjust to the new realities on the global geopolitical stage. It should expand to include those nations that have over time demonstrated their willingness to contribute to the defence of our values. Thus Japan, Australia and Israel should be invited as close observers and talks on their integration into the Nato framework should commence as soon as possible.
Finally, President Trump should pursue these goals in a positive manner but with a firm hand. There must be clear goals and consequences for the failure to reach them. European nations are apt at breaking promises on expenditure and finding excuses where force is involved. They express political solidarity but are absent when it comes to avoiding any military commitment. Britain’s special relationship with the U.S. stems in part from its greater willingness to share the difficult burden of sending her troops in harm’s way. We must now see a wider system across Nato that can produce standing collective units to be deployed when a decision is taken and are supported by an integrated approach to modernisation.
Europe and Western civilisation need Nato and would be foolish to think that the truths President Trump speaks to will disappear with him. Urgent action is necessary and tough love from America is a helpful start.