Even the most casual observer of US politics has been shaken by the extremities of the Donald Trump presidential campaign. He is perhaps the most high profile example of the recent trend in western politics as a whole of more colourful characters that are trying to buck the trend of the grey-suited, stoic politicians that are often indistinguishable from one another. Regardless of your own opinion of Donald Trump it can’t be denied that he is a charismatic personality that can fire up his supporters and energise crowds with his often inflammatory statements.
While the rest of the world has looked on with curiosity at the battle for the Republican leadership it was a recent statement by Trump that has got Europe slightly worried. Speaking in Cleveland, Ohio earlier this week the Republican candidate for the White House reiterated his “America First” policy and as part of that he dropped the bombshell that if he gets in the White House then America may not automatically honour its obligations to defend NATO countries should they come under attack.
This is in reference to Article 5 of NATO membership which promotes the principle of collective defence which has been at the very heart of NATO since its founding. The term “collective defence” means that an attack against one member state is considered an attack against all member states. It is interesting to note that only once in the alliance’s history has Article 5 ever been invoked and it was in defence of the United States of America in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Trump said that while he would “prefer to go on” with the way things are regarding the alliance he clarified his position by stating that under his presidency, US support to a member state would depend entirely on how much that member has contributed to the alliance. This is more than just Trump stating that the US will not foot the bill for European defence. It can be argued that the US signed the Washington Treaty regarding collective defence and is therefore bound by it but from the Trump camp’s perspective, many of Europe’s members have already failed to live up to their own commitments by not meeting the target of 2% of GDP being spent on defence in 2016.
According to figures published by NATO earlier this month only five out of the twenty-eight countries in NATO have met this target;
- The United States of America
- The United Kingdom
Not even France and Germany have met this target which means that much of Europe has little right to criticise Donald Trump regarding honouring the Washington Treaty and NATO itself. The reasons why so many countries have not spent 2% of their economies on defence as required are both varied and numerous but the biggest problem has been claimed to be Europe’s slow recovery from the economic crisis of 2008 and to a lessor extent the influx of refugees from Syria and Africa.
Reading between the lines however there is another factor that Trump and his supporters are becoming increasingly frustrated with. It is interesting to note that he specifically mentions a member state’s support to the alliance not the defence of Europe for there are now two military factions protecting western Europe; NATO and the military wing of the European Union. The EU has no army but instead has an organisational wing devoted to military cooperation between members.
Generally speaking, NATO still takes priority in the defence of western Europe but the armed forces of the European Union are increasingly becoming a more dominant factor in European foreign policies. From its very inception, NATO has been driven by US policies afforded to Washington by American military and economic support that was vital to western Europe’s defence during the days of the Cold War. For France in particular this was an intolerable position and there has long been a feeling that there has been a determination in Europe to rid itself of the White House with the ultimate goal being to create a true “EU Army”. This has understandably caused friction across the Atlantic as the US sees NATO having to compete for resources with the EU military wing.
With this in mind, it is easier to understand US frustration with Europe but if “President Trump” intends to force Europe in to deciding which is more important – NATO or the EU Army – then he may find that the European dream that is the EU may in fact overpower the perceived need for NATO especially if the matter is handed to the people in a referendum. The Trump policy of “America First” which has won him so many supporters in the US may in fact convince EU member states that President Trump’s America would be an unreliable ally and view a true European Army as the only way to guarantee its defence in the face of an increasingly aggressive Russia and an alarming increase in terrorist activity.
It’s a nightmare scenario for “Brexit Britain” which would find itself out of the European Union and in a NATO that stands for very little anymore. Of course, the UK would still enjoy its special relationship with the United States but as a political outsider on the European continent its strategic position would be significantly weakened.
But an EU Army being primarily responsible for the defence of western Europe would be a potential disaster for Europe as well. After sixty years of NATO dominance the militaries of Europe have come to rely heavily on the United States military for a number of specialised roles e.g. there is no real equivalent to the Boeing E/A-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft in Europe’s air forces. More fundamentally, the sheer number of “boots on the ground” an EU Army could generate would be many times smaller than a mobilised NATO force.
Again, the worry is that Trump’s extreme foreign policies would actually encourage the formation of an EU Army despite these drawbacks. Proponents of the EU Army would argue that with pooled resources Europe could develop its own equivalent systems that it currently has to rely on the US for but what they forget is that Europe still relies very heavily on US weapon systems such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II (below). Put bluntly, a totally EU Army cannot shake off US influence completely.
So how can such a nightmare scenario be avoided?
The obvious answer is that European NATO members meet their 2% commitment to NATO and confirm that the alliance has authority over defence of the west. As the old saying goes; that’s easier said than done. The European economy is largely recovering from 2008 but with the withdrawal of one of the major economic powers, the United Kingdom, being imminent and the influx of refugees from Syria and Africa placing a weighty burden on European countries the prospect of NATO’s target being met by every country looks bleak. Even NATO’s second largest standing army, Turkey, is now in complete disarray following the recent coup attempt to overthrow the government in Ankara bringing in to doubt how useful it would be to NATO if a major crisis erupts in the coming months.
Only Donald Trump knows how far his presidency may push Europe over NATO should he win the upcoming US election. Regardless of this fact however there continues to be a will in Europe to establish the EU Army. Against such a backdrop, NATO may either have to go through a radical reshaping or be disbanded altogether and have the US, UK and Canada sign a new treaty with the EU Army regarding the defence of the west.