NATO chief’s mission in Washington: keeping the Alliance relevant

Trump is not pro-European, NATO is

Marcin Zaborowski
12 April 2017

As Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, visits Washington, European security is far off from the centre of attention of the White House. Two items that dominate the news cycle – Syria and North Korea – are in fact potentially contributing to Trump’s irritation with NATO. Even the pro-Europeans in Washington have the tendency to see NATO as excessively one-sided. They see the Alliance as essentially protecting the Europeans and they argue that most of Europeans (with the exception of UK) have failed to repay in kind when America needed them, for example, in Afghanistan.

Trump is not pro-European. His favourite European politician is probably Nigel Farage – the leader of the Brexit campaign. Trump’s feelings towards NATO were made clear in his various tweets – for example when he called the Alliance ‘obsolete’ – and during the visit of Chancellor Merkel when he implied that Germany and others should pay for the protection offered by US forces.

It is true that since then Washington softened its tone towards NATO. Vice-President Pence delivered a standard defence of NATO and Atlanticism at the Munich Security Conference and Trump stopped tweeting about the Alliance. Most importantly words are just words but after all it has been under Trump’s watch that the US executes the largest deployment of its forces to the Alliance’s Eastern flank.

Trump has two essential demands on NATO now. The first is that member state would spend on defence not less that 2% of GDP, which they have committed to a number of times. Secondly, Trump expects that the Alliance would forge a robust coalition to fight ISIS in Northern Iraq. Both demands are seen by NATO’s structures as reasonable and even helpful. NATO chiefs have been calling for raising defence spending to little effect for years. Many in NATO also believe that the Alliance should be more involved in fighting ISIS.

It is therefore perfectly possible that Trump and Stoltenberg will have a congenial meeting at which they would agree on some core items concerning Europe and the Alliance. However, the real task for NATO Secretary General will be to convince Trump that NATO has added value for America’s security and that it is worth investing in. This will be hard in the current circumstances with the US facing security crises in Syria and Korea – where NATO’s relevance is at best marginal. As Trump will be nodding his head in agreement with NATO’s Secretary General his thoughts are not likely to be focused on the Atlantic.

Marcin Zaborowski is Senior Associate at Visegrad Insight.