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I have no doubt that Donald Trump’s presidency will do terrible harm to the moral, economic, and cultural ties that have bound the transatlantic community together since the Second World War: this is indeed a dark hour for the Enlightenment.
But it is too soon to give up hope. To be sure, it will take far more than a new NATO to reinvigorate the democratic way of life. It will take millions of grass-roots activists to demonstrate to their fellow-citizens that ‘democracy’ is not a formula disguising rule by plutocratic elites, but a vibrant pathway to social justice for all.
Meanwhile, it remains critically important for current leaders to shape prevailing political dynamics in ways that provide a space for democratic forces to regain the initiative.
If translated into action, Trump’s campaign rhetoric opens up two diplomatic initiatives that will transform America’s relationship to Europe. Under the first, the president makes a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to de-escalate the intensifying confrontation between NATO and Russian forces on Europe’s Eastern frontier.
Under the second, he demands that NATO allies stop ‘free-riding’ on America and pay a much bigger share in the provision of their own security. Given Trump’s penchant for wheeling-and-dealing, he will be tempted to pursue both strategies at once.
This is a mistake. If the president tries to have his cake and eat it too, it is all too likely that his partnership with Putin will lead to the tragic disintegration of NATO. Unless, that is, European leaders act now to pre-empt the clear dangers involved in this dual strategy.
This involves, first, a strong diplomatic effort to convince the US president that he should limit his rapprochement to Putin to symbolic gestures – and preserve his freedom of action in the Middle East.
At the same time, the European leadership should signal its willingness to bargain in good faith on a new cost-sharing agreement for NATO. Such an overture would serve only as the beginning of an extended period of tough negotiations.
Nevertheless, it would offer the new president the prospect of a grand ‘Trumpian’ moment in which he triumphantly announces that he has made a Big Deal with Europe which makes NATO and America Great Again.
So what should the new agreement look like?
Let’s begin with the obvious. A key element of this New Deal will be a major increase in European military investment over the next decade. But more than money will be involved. The Europeans should declare that, by 2026, their ground troops will take primary responsibility for guarding the Eastern frontier.
At the same time, Trump would recommit the US to a strong and continuing role in transatlantic defence. Not only would America provide crucial air, sea and logistical support, but the US Army would reinforce European troops on the ground at moments of crisis. Trump’s recommitment of American ground forces to the Eastern frontier will dramatically reduce the chances of Russian aggression.
A New Deal for NATO will lead to a much larger German military – inevitably generating widespread fear of resurgent militarism there. But these anxieties are misplaced in the present context.
After all, a reinvigorated NATO does not involve the creation of a mighty German army defending the homeland against foreign danger. It proposes the very opposite: German troops will be integrated into a coordinated European force that will guard the Eastern frontier in conjunction with transatlantic allies.
The sceptical critique is also misdirected on a second dimension: it ignores the greater danger of militarisation if Trump’s Russian détente breaks down after a few years, and Germany is then obliged to respond with a massive military build-up.
The country would have no choice but to organise a powerful army led by a German high-command – just the nightmare conjured up by pacifist critics of a New Deal for NATO.
The sceptical critique of the Trump initiative is, in short, self-defeating – promoting the very catastrophe that the critics want to avoid. The challenge for Angela Merkel – or a different German Chancellor after this year’s elections – and other European leaders is to emphasise this fundamental point.
It is also time to take the next step, and consider how a second moral issue will force itself on to the bargaining table. From its very beginning, NATO was understood as something more than a mere marriage of military convenience.
Instead, it was a crucial vehicle for the defence of democracy in an epochal struggle against totalitarianism – in which NATO members committed themselves to develop peaceful relations in the words of Article II of their Treaty, ‘by strengthening their free institutions’.
If the transatlantic community is to renegotiate NATO’s basic commitments, it cannot avoid asking itself a final question: What to make of this Treaty commitment to democracy as NATO redefines itself for the twenty-first century?
For all his strong-man posturing, it will be Trump who will be obliged by his political allies – as well as his enemies – to take this question seriously. As we have seen, to gain increased financial support, he will have to give the Europeans something in return – a renewed commitment that American ground troops will fight and die with their European comrades to defend against future military invasions on the Eastern frontier.
But it is this guarantee that will put Trump in a politically exposed position. During his campaign, he exploited widespread disenchantment with the endless wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East to promise voters that he will never again order ground troops on to the field to fight and die for corrupt Middle Eastern autocrats.
But this will provoke many of his political allies to question the very legitimacy of his New Deal with Europe. Quite simply, if Americans should no longer be required to die in defence of Baghdad or Kabul, why should they die for Gdansk or Riga?
Trump has only one plausible response – but only if he can convincingly portray Poland or Latvia as vibrant democracies.
There is, however, an obvious problem raised by Trump’s democratic riposte. Recent events in Poland, Hungary and Turkey render their claims to democracy deeply problematic. If nothing is done, dying for Gdansk, Budapest or Ankara will soon become the moral equivalent of dying for Baghdad or Kabul.
Why then should Trump recommit the country to NATO if the alliance is no longer dedicated to the defence of the democratic way of life? Unless he can provide a decisive answer, this question will generate a powerful domestic political backlash against Trump’s New Deal.
To save his initiative, he will have a compelling incentive to launch serious diplomatic initiatives with Poland Hungary, and Turkey – aimed at defining the concrete actions NATO will require to guarantee democracy in these nations.
If NATO members are to redeem their pledge to strengthen ‘their free institutions’, the New Deal should contain a new Democracy Protocol that defines procedures and standards for resolving future controversies.
In hammering out the terms of this new Protocol, the experience of the Venice Commission serves as a valuable resource. On the positive side, the commission’s performance demonstrates the feasibility of professionally disciplined investigations into real-world practices that threaten foundational principles.
On the negative side, the EU’s response to the commission’s findings has been painfully inadequate. They make it clear that the rules regulating EU sanctions cannot serve as a plausible model for the new NATO Protocol.
If NATO is to sustain a credible commitment to democracy, it cannot allow individual member-states, or small minorities, the broad veto-powers granted by the EU sanctions-system.
This is not the place to consider plausible replacements. However, I do suggest that this is a moment for the Venice Commission to offer its assistance to NATO on these critical design issues – so that its leadership will not be blind-sided if the political dynamic I have described does indeed lead them to make a serious effort to redeem NATO’s democratic mission.
Bruce Ackerman is the Sterling Professor at Yale Law School. His contribution is adapted from a keynote address at a conference held in Venice last December, and entitled ‘Reorganising NATO: Europe’s Last Chance to Preserve Fundamental Rights’.
Banner image: For a New NATO Deal to work, Donald Trump needs to be convinced to limit his rapprochement to Russian President Vladimir Putin to symbolic gestures. Courtesy of Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia.