Worried NATO partners wonder if Atlantic alliance can survive Trump

Europeans hope the president who disparages allies and praises autocrats is an aberration, but fear problems might run deeper

By Julian Borger  /  The Guardian

Wed, Jul 11, 2018 - Page 9

The words “We are allies” are emblazoned in two-foot yellow and white letters on fences around NATO headquarters in Brussels, in anticipation of today’s summit.

After nearly seven decades of the most successful alliance in world history, this sort of reminder should not be necessary. However, given the events of the past year and a half, there is little doubt about what this message is meant to say and to whom.

US President Donald Trump is to be in Brussels for the summit next week and he is showing every intention of disrupting any attempt at consensus and solidarity.

“I’ll tell NATO, you got to start paying your bills,” Trump told a wildly cheering crowd in Montana on Thursday last week.

The president pondered aloud about the value for the US in paying for the collective defense of Germany.

Trump said he told German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “You know Angela, I can’t guarantee it, but we’re protecting you and it means a lot more to you than protecting us, because I don’t know how much protection we get by protecting you.”

The denigration of NATO and the EU, long-standing US allies, has become about as common in the US president’s oratory as his praise for autocrats like North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Trump is to meet in Helsinki on Monday next week.

“‘You know — President Putin is KGB’ and this and that,” Trump said, referencing criticism of his relationship with the Russian leader. “You know, Putin’s fine. He’s fine. We’re all fine. We’re people.”

US Permanent Representative to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchinson last week briefed journalists in an attempt to provide a more orthodox narrative, insisting that the alliance was firm and that the US would stand in solidarity with its Western partners in holding Russia to account for its actions in Ukraine, and its meddling in Western elections and the alleged use of nerve agent in the UK.

However, nobody knows what Trump will say in Brussels or Helsinki, or during his UK trip in between. As he demonstrated after last month’s G7 summit in Quebec, he can trigger a crisis in Western cohesion with just a few off-the-cuff jibes aimed at old allies.

US and EU officials have uniformly sought to play down the significance of Trump’s antics, insisting that the underlying sinews of the Atlantic alliance are strong. The implication is that Trump has come like a bolt from the blue and will eventually go, while the interlocking security institutions of the West and its common values will outlast him.

However, some Western leaders and senior officials are beginning to wonder whether this somewhat complacent assessment is still valid.

After all, Trump is not yelling into a void, they have said.

When he trashed NATO in Montana, thousands of people yelled their approval. He won the 2016 US presidential election and maintains a 90 percent approval rating among US Republicans, because he has tapped into a deeply buried reflex in US politics.

In that case, perhaps Trump is not the exception, an anomaly in transatlantic progress, the pessimists have argued. Maybe NATO and transatlanticism itself are the anomalies and US suspicion of and disengagement from Europe are the norm.

“What is on the table right now, in a sort of brutal way, is a real problem not created by President Trump and that will not vanish at the end of the term or terms of President Trump,” a senior European official said. “The transatlantic relationship that all of us around the table consider as a given — is not a given.”

The signs were already there during the administration of former US president Barack Obama, the worried official said.

Obama too sought to reorient the focus of US foreign policy from Europe toward Asia. He just did not express his disengagement as crudely and rudely as Trump.

“The presidents have understood the fatigue of the Americans towards foreign involvement, in their own very different way,” the official said.

“I think that most Europeans are dreaming that after the term of Trump we will go back to business as usual,” he added, making it clear he thought that was not going to happen. “For the Europeans, it is quite a wake-up call. For the Europeans suddenly, their world is shattered.”

For most of its history, the US has sought to avoid entanglement in Europe, and more or less succeeded from independence in 1776 until 1917, when the country reluctantly entered World War I. Even then, most Americans were keen to leave again as soon as possible.

US Congress turned its back on then-US president Woodrow Wilson’s international ideals and refused to ratify the Versailles peace treaty or allow the US to join the new League of Nations.

Congress was just as resistant to being sucked into World War II, and the US could well have sat on the sidelines had Japan not attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 and Germany not declared war on the US four days later.

When World War II was over in 1945, the US again made plans to pull out, demobilizing 90 percent of its troops. However, over the following two years it became increasingly clear that European states were not going to recover economically without US help and that the Soviet Union was looming as a global threat. So the US stayed in Europe, rebuilding Germany and forming NATO.

Now Europe is mostly prosperous and the Soviet Union has gone. A revanchist Russia has taken its place, but it is a far punier power, with only the fifth-biggest economy in Europe.

“Russia is not an existential threat. It’s not felt in London, Paris or Rome as an existential threat. It’s not a unifying threat,” the senior European official said.

With the Cold War conditions that persuaded the US to stay engaged in Europe now in the past, some have argued that it is inevitable that Americans would at some point reconsider their role.

“After 1919 and 1945 we had these huge debates on should we stay in Europe or should we go home,” US historian Walter Russell Mead said.

“After 1990 there was very little debate. The assumption was that we would double down on the world order building agenda that we applied to the West in the Cold War — but we’d now do that globally,” he said. “We never had that debate. So I think we’re having it now.”

He views Trump and his supporters as a throwback to an earlier school of US foreign policy, embodied by former US president Andrew Jackson, who Mead argues was the country’s first populist president.

Jacksonians do not see the republic as a set of ideals, but as the nation state of the (white) American people. Jacksonian foreign policy is focused on defending that nation state against malign influences and the cosmopolitan impulses of the elites.

Within days of his inauguration in January last year, Trump had a portrait of Jackson, known as the “Indian killer” for his brutal campaigns against Native Americans, hung in the Oval Office of the White House.

The new president’s chief strategist at the time, Steve Bannon, called Mead to tell him that his writings on the Jacksonian tradition in his 2001 book, Special Providence, had inspired the decision to put Jackson in a place of honor in the new White House. He saw Trump as reviving the Jacksonian revolt against cosmopolitan elites.

Bannon is long gone, but the portrait of Jackson is still hanging in the White House.

Mead has not argued that Trump’s electoral victory and his readiness to rewrite the tenets of US foreign policy mean that Jacksonian thinking is now dominant.

It has about 30 percent to 40 percent of popular support — “not a majority, but a significant group,” Mead said.

The idea that Trump’s ascendancy reflects a reversion back to an earlier US norm is controversial. Many political analysts and historians have argued that it projects a coherence onto the president’s foreign policy impulses that is not there in reality.

Dan Drezner, international politics professor at Tufts University, has argued that what unites the US and Europe in the modern world will ultimately prove far stronger than Trump’s divisive influence.

“These are the twin pillars of liberal democracies. These are continents and countries and associations that have a lot more in common than they do not,” Drezner said. “The notion that NATO is going to split asunder I think is absurd.”

Even as Trump rails against NATO, his administration — the Pentagon in particular — has been boosting its commitment to the alliance in resources and troops deployed on its eastern flank. This month’s summit is to see the creation of two new commands, one on the US east coast to oversee the protection of transatlantic sea lanes and another in Germany to run logistics to ensure that the alliance can reinforce quickly when threatened.

The new commitments reflect the atlanticist convictions of the US military and diplomatic corps, who might well be seeking to compensate for Trump’s anti-NATO rhetoric.

“It’s never just one or the other,” said Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian historian and Oxford University professor. “The idea that there is a default mode of being involved or a default mode of not being involved is too bipolar. It’s much more complex.”

However, even if Trump does not represent a once-and-for-all shift in US foreign policy, that does not mean his anti-European rhetoric and embrace of dictators is not having a long-term corrosive effect on transatlantic relations, she said.

“I think Trump is doing an awful lot of damage and these things are not easily undone,” MacMillan said.