Trump is wrong: Guns alone don’t make a superpower

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

"NATO will survive Trump's disruption as Europe pushes ahead with new security initiatives - but modern super powers don't just rely on guns." [Thomas Peter/Pool/EPA/EFE]

Since his election, US President Donald Trump has been wreaking havoc wherever he goes and his next target is most probably NATO, warns Shada Islam.

Shada Islam is the director of Europe & Geopolitics at Friends of Europe. This opinion piece was first posted on that organisation’s website.

Having struck at the heart of the once all-powerful Group of Seven (G7) of industrialised countries, caused havoc among world trading nations and insulted almost all key allies, is US President Donald Trump now going to take an axe to the NATO military alliance?

The short answer is: “yes”. The longer one is: “yes, probably”.

The US President has made no secret of his contempt for the Alliance. He thinks the US is being taken advantage of: European states aren’t spending enough on defence and who wants to sit around talking endlessly about cooperation and solidarity anyway?

No surprise then that Europeans, who haven’t forgotten the anti-Alliance tirade they received last year, are braced for another bruising NATO summit in Brussels on 11-12 July.

More recent Trump suggestions that the US should leave the Alliance because “NATO is as bad as NAFTA” or that the EU was set up to take advantage of the US are laughable of course.  But the president appears to be deadly serious.

The one hope is that this time around, Trump may be in a good mood given his date with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on 16 July.

But there is also fear of the ultimate insult: an unhappy and acrimonious NATO summit, followed only days later with a warm embrace of the West’s now-favourite adversary.

That’s what happened after the G7 summit in Canada when Trump, having thumbed his nose at his six G7 partners, jetted off in a huff for a love-in with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

It’s not just about NATO, however. True, the US president has a special bee in his bonnet about European “free riders” when it comes to military expenditure ‒ and Europeans themselves acknowledge the need to update their defence budgets ‒ but the fact is that Trump hates any organisation, any initiative, any agreement which has the nasty whiff of international cooperation.

Rules-based multilateralism, nations working together, despite their differences, to tackle trans-border challenges like climate change, the proliferation of nuclear weapons or keeping their markets open to foreign trade are just not his thing. Best to get used to it and move on.

And that is exactly what seems to be happening. Finally.

Nine EU countries have agreed to establish a European military force for rapid deployment in times of crisis, an initiative which has won the backing of the UK as it seeks to maintain defence ties after Brexit and of NATO which sees the move as complementary.

There’s also the wider EU plan for Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) on security and defence and a recent EU blueprint for more pro-active security cooperation “in and with” Asia.

These and other European endeavours to burnish Europe’s hard security credentials are important. However it is Europe’s “soft power” in dealing with “non-traditional security” challenges which is really unrivalled – and increasingly relevant.

That’s nothing to be ashamed of or defensive about. Contrary to what Trump and other “strong men” believe, the real threats to global peace and stability in the 21st Century don’t always emanate from inter-state conflicts and wars. And armies aren’t the answer to all global security challenges.

Certainly, nationalism, rival territorial claims, ideological differences and fear of war – as well as the desire to modernise their armies and hedge against potential confrontation – are pushing countries to spend more on acquiring and manufacturing conventional arms and nuclear weapons.

Threats to world peace, however, also come from non-state actors, including ISIS and its offshoots, and from an array of hybrid threats which cannot be defeated by military action alone.

Stability and prosperity are threatened by non-traditional security threats, including climate change, trafficking in people, competition for water, energy and food as well as cyber warfare and increasingly sophisticated disinformation campaigns.

As such, while development aid may seem unrelated to security, Agenda 2030 of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is primarily about building a safer world. A multilateral rules-based order is another major pillar of peace and security.

NATO will survive Trump and Europe will certainly push ahead with new security initiatives. But in a world which will count almost 10 billion people in 2050, it’s states who invest in keeping their citizens well-fed, healthy, employed and resilient in the face of natural and manmade disasters which will be the real global super powers.

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