With no clear global or regional strategy, Trump slams NATO before summit with Putin

While US allies may agree to increase spending on defence, defence against whom is not so clear.
Sunday 15/07/2018
Odd man out. US President Donald Trump walks in as he is introduced at the summit of heads of state and government at NATO headquarters in Brussels, on July 11. (AP)
Odd man out. US President Donald Trump walks in as he is introduced at the summit of heads of state and government at NATO headquarters in Brussels, on July 11. (AP)

US President Donald Trump slammed America’s NATO partners at the alliance’s annual summit in Brussels over their failure to reach the target for defence spending that they had previously agreed to — 2% of GDP.

While Trump did not directly threaten to pull the United States out of NATO — the alliance that has been the cornerstone of Western security for nearly seven decades — he strongly suggested that the alliance’s European members have taken advantage of the United States, which spends roughly 4% of its GDP on defence. Trump said the United States may have to “go it alone” if its allies do not meet his demands.

Trump never made clear why NATO members should spend more on defence and he has refused to explicitly acknowledge that Russia poses a military danger to Europe. Nor did he advocate for a larger out-of-region role for NATO, a role the alliance played in Afghanistan and the Middle East following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, subsequent attacks in Madrid and London and in 2011 when a NATO-led coalition intervened in Libya during the uprising against former strongman Muammar Qaddafi.

It is hard to imagine a NATO intervention in the Middle East today given there is virtually no consensus among NATO members on whether or how to act in the region. Trump appears to have no appetite for increased US military intervention in the Middle East. In fact, he has spoken of withdrawing the remaining US forces in the region. If he does conclude that US military intervention in the region is necessary, he is far more likely to act unilaterally, not as part of NATO.

This is especially true in the case of Iran, where many of Washington’s fellow NATO members do not share the Trump administration’s confrontational approach and are doing all they can to maintain ties to Tehran. In a news conference July 12 in Brussels, Trump said “there might be an escalation between us and the Iranians.” If this unspecified escalation includes military action, it almost certainly will not be a NATO operation.

The debate over NATO’s mission predates Trump. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 ostensibly removed the West’s common enemy but the alliance responded by expanding its membership. Today, there is no consensus among NATO members on what exactly are the security threats facing the alliance: For Baltic states, it remains Moscow; for Italy, it is migration; for Turkey, it is instability in neighbouring countries and Kurdish empowerment in Syria and Iraq.

While US allies may agree to increase spending on defence, defence against whom is not so clear.

After a brief stop in the United Kingdom — where he undermined British Prime Minister Theresa May by telling London’s the Sun: “I actually told Theresa May how to [negotiate Brexit] but she didn’t agree. She didn’t listen to me” and saying that her nemesis, former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, would make a great prime minister — Trump flew to Helsinki for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16.

Two issues are expected to dominate the Trump-Putin agenda (although with Trump, agendas are never set in stone): Nuclear arms control and Syria. On Syria, Trump will have a message similar to that of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who met with Putin in Moscow on July 11.

Essentially, the message is this: We accept Russia’s dominant role in Syria and are willing to live with the Bashar Assad regime but on condition that Iranian influence in Syria is greatly curtailed.

This joint US-Israeli request is in part an acceptance of reality — Moscow already is the dominant outside power in Syria and that is not going to change in the foreseeable future — and in part a test of Putin’s willingness to use his influence over both Assad and Iran to create a less dangerous situation in the region. If Russia is willing and able to bring about a curtailment of Iran’s presence in Syria, Tehran’s goal of a land bridge to the Mediterranean will be blunted.

Several questions, however, remain: Will Putin demand something in return, such as a loosening or elimination of US sanctions on Moscow over its annexation of Crimea? Will Putin agree to do something that sours his blossoming relationship with Iran? Will Damascus agree to the deal, turning on its long-time Iranian ally? Will Gulf Cooperation Council states enter the game by signalling to Assad that desperately needed funds for Syria’s redevelopment would be available if he ejects the Iranians?

One thing is certain: Trump will return to Washington claiming that he achieved near-miraculous success on his journey and that the world is more secure because of it. Both claims are unproven, especially in the absence of a clear US global or regional strategy.