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The election of Donald Trump as US president has created unprecedented uncertainty about America’s security guarantee towards its allies in Europe.
If there was a rational core of his critique of NATO, it seemed to be that it should focus on ‘Islamist terrorism’ rather than the threat to its eastern flank from a revisionist Russia.
Earlier this month, Trump seemed to change his mind and said NATO was ‘no longer’ obsolete because it ‘now’ fights terrorism. However, although this statement has been widely interpreted as a U-turn, it actually confirms that Trump wants NATO to shift away from territorial defence.
Trump has also made the US security guarantee conditional on increased spending by NATO's European members. President Barack Obama and officials such as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had long criticised Europeans for ‘free riding’.
What was new was the suggestion that the US might not come to the defence of allies that did not pay the money they owed.
This new conditionality was confirmed at the Munich Security Conference in February when Defense Secretary James Mattis said that unless Europeans fulfilled their commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence, the US would ‘moderate its commitment’ to them.
Thus, ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels next month – which Trump is due to attend – the uncertainty about the US security guarantee is likely to continue.
However, this new uncertainty coincides with the deployment of NATO troops and military hardware in the four countries often considered the most vulnerable to a possible Russian attack (‘Enhanced Forward Presence’), which was agreed at the Warsaw summit in 2016.
When I visited Warsaw last month, I expected people to be worried about Trump’s statements and the uncertainty it had created. But in January, a US armoured brigade consisting of 4,000 troops began to arrive. Moreover, Poland is one of the few NATO countries that spends more than 2% of GDP on defence. I was struck by the feeling of security. ‘We feel safer than ever’, I was told.
There seems to be a similar feeling of security in Estonia, where the first of 800 British troops and Challenger main battle tanks arrived earlier this month as part of a multinational battle group that will also include French troops. There are some in Estonia, however, who also worry that the demonstrative presence of NATO troops may unnecessarily provoke Russia.
British troops may not be quite as reassuring as American troops, but they are perceived as being the second-best option. Like Poland, Estonia also spends more than 2% of GDP on defence – another reason for confidence there about the US security guarantee despite Trump’s rhetoric.
However, the situation is somewhat different in Latvia and Lithuania, which feel they have drawn the short straw. The battle group that is deploying to Latvia is led by Canada and will also include troops from Albania, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Spain.
In Lithuania, Germany is the lead nation, supported by Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Norway. Although both Latvia and Lithuania have moved to quickly increase defence spending since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, they still spent under 1.5% of GDP on defence in 2016.
Winston Churchill is famously supposed to have quipped: ‘All I need for the security of Europe is one American soldier – preferably dead’. It is not entirely clear if this is still true.
However, the US security guarantee is certainly more credible if American troops are stationed in your country than if troops of other nationalities are.
For example, it is harder to imagine that the Trump administration would support the invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – and with it an escalation with Russia – if a German soldier were killed during a Russian incursion in Lithuania than if an American soldier were killed in Poland. Thus, Latvia and Lithuania may be the new weak link in NATO.
This illustrates the way that, in the context of Trump’s demand that NATO countries spend 2% of GDP on defence and the deployment of NATO troops to the Baltic states and Poland, what may be emerging is a system of implicit bilateral security guarantees between NATO countries, centred on the US.
The extent to which any NATO member can rely on the US security guarantee may now depend on how much it spends on defence and on whether it has American troops stationed on its soil.
This transformation of collective security into a system of differentiated bilateral security guarantees may mean the de facto end of NATO as a collective security organisation.
What may be happening is a kind of creeping ‘East Asianisation’ of Europe. The term comes from John Ikenberry, who, in his book Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order, described how the US pursued different liberal hegemonic strategies in Europe and East Asia in the post-war period.
In Europe, it pursued a ‘multilateral rules-based approach’ centred on collective security within NATO. This was ‘rule through rules’.
In East Asia, meanwhile, it pursued a different approach – ‘hub and spoke bilateralism’ centred on security guarantees with individual countries such as Japan and South Korea. This was ‘rule through relationships’.
The reasons why the US pursued these different approaches are complex. But in Liberal Leviathan Ikenberry argued that it was partly because the US wanted more out from Europe than it did from Asia – it had ‘an elaborate agenda of uniting Europe, creating an institutional bulwark against communism, and supporting centrist democratic governments’ – and therefore needed to make greater commitments. NATO was the result.
However, Ikenberry argued that after the end of the Cold War, US might generalise the bilateral approach took in Asia. In particular, unipolarity might create structural incentives for it to shift towards greater bilateralism.
However, even as the world becomes more multipolar, ‘East Asianisation’ may now be happening simply because the Trump administration has little interest in the ‘elaborate agenda’ the US has had in Europe going back to the end of the Second World War.
In addition, Trump seems instinctively to think in terms of bilateral ‘deals’ rather than multilateral structures. It therefore stands to reason that under Trump the US would take a more ‘East Asian’ approach to Europe.
What this suggests is that even if the US security guarantee to European allies might not disappear completely, it might nevertheless be the end of NATO as we know it.
Hans Kundnani is a Senior Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy and a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC. A version of this article was originally published on the Transatlantic Academy’s website.
Banner image: A tank from the US Army's 4th Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team takes part in an exercise in Poland as part of NATO's Enhanced Forward Prsence. Courtesy of US Army/Staff Sgt. Micah VanDyke.