Beyond the Article 5 backlash: What really happened with Trump and NATO

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US President Donald J. Trump at NATO headquarters. Brussels, 25 May. [Etienne Laurent/ EPA]

Seemingly, 25 May was the ‘Day the Music Died’ at NATO. Few have missed the turmoil around US President Donald Trump’s Brussels visit. But the real story has flown under the radar, reveals Anna Wieslander.

Anna Wieslander is a director at the Atlantic Council.

While delivering a speech at the unveiling of the Article 5 and Berlin Wall memorial at the new NATO HQ, Trump was reported to be insulting allies with blunt messages on their lack of defence spending, as well as undermining the very foundation of the alliance by failing to explicitly mention the US commitment to Article 5.

The icing on the cake was when Trump brutally shoved his way to the front of the family photo.

However, a fair assessment can only be made by looking at both political and military developments in conjunction to the meeting.

Since Trump took office, Republicans have visited Europe with a consistent message: do not pay attention to what the president says. Instead, look at what the administration does.

For people following politics, this is an awkward piece of advice. In a field where every word is carefully considered, it can of course not be fully accepted. But in this case, it does carry some merits. While the heat is on to interpret and debate the latest tweets and twists of facts from the president, reality does move forward.

As for the president’s remarks at the Article 5 memorial, parts of it were clearly too outspoken and unsophisticated. On the other hand, the speech did not lack a reference to US commitments:

”This twisted mass of metal reminds us not only of what we have lost but also what forever endures: the courage of our people, the strength of our resolve, and the commitments that bind us together as one. We will never forget the lives that were lost. We will never forsake the friends who stood by our side.”

Turning to the formal NATO meeting with the heads of states, it was, according to senior NATO officials, a ‘tough’ meeting, which left them ‘disquieted’. But was it a disaster? These things also happened during the dinner session:

  • President Trump kicked off his intervention by expressing solid support for NATO. He did not leave it out, nor connect it only to those who pay their ‘fair share’;
  • Allies around the table recognised the need and confirmed their ambition to increase defence spending and burden sharing, and presented concrete steps in this direction. In the end, these efforts will make NATO stronger;
  • Montenegro received warm applause, which is rare in this setting, from all heads of state to honour that it will join the alliance as a full member on 7 June. The Open Door policy remains a corner stone of NATO;
  • Although not a topic on the agenda, many allies took the opportunity to underline the continued need to stay united and firm on Russia and to balance deterrence with dialogue, as decided upon at the Warsaw summit. The message to president Trump was clear, and he did not express a different view;
  • Quite a few leaders focused on NATO as a community of like-minded nations with shared values. This is a team, in which all members have an opportunity to take on responsibility. Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemöller afterwards described the meeting as ‘heartfelt’;
  • A few incremental steps were taken to improve the capability to deal with counter terrorism, which could pave the way for more resources for larger training missions in failed states to the South.

However, the most stunning development came prior to Trump’s arrival in Brussels. In the US budget proposal for 2018, the president has set aside $4.8 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), designed to step up US forces in Europe to deter Russia and show American commitment to European security.

That is a 40% increase from the Obama Administration’s level. The importance of this proposal cannot be underestimated.

If the Baltic States and Poland had to choose between Trump mentioning Article 5 or having American troops on their ground, the pick would be easy.

To sum up: the US backs NATO and it will substantially strengthen its military support to Europe, while other allies are increasing as well. NATO is united in its strategy towards Russia, takes step forward to further address terrorism and the door remains open for new members.

Whatever opinion one might have on President Trump, it is doubtful whether this outcome can be labelled “a catastrophe for US-Europe relations”, as some headlines have expressed it.

NATO is actually in pretty good shape. The music might be turned down but certainly not off. The question mark is more in the distance: what happens if allies do not make progress on burden-sharing? But neither NATO nor the US is there yet.

Trump’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for multilateral settings is likely to set limits to the energy level of US leadership in NATO. However, if the present trend continues, this will mostly hit the political, rather than the military side of the organisation.

That tendency was present already during President Obama’s time at the helm, during the pivot to Asia. When the US is less active, an opportunity emerges for other allies to assume leadership, take initiatives and push issues.

Trump’s bluntness and lack of sophistication should have come as no surprise to anybody.

Clearly, he did not manage to charm the leaders in Brussels, nor make any new friends. This is of course a backdrop but not crucial to the relation across the Atlantic in the coming years.

For Europe it is important to signal that rude manners do not belong in this community but the US does, and that there are mutual interests to pursue the relation. There is still no way that Europe can handle its security by itself, while the challenges are massive and urgent.