Ukraine, Trump and lots of money: assessing the future of NATO

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At a campaign rally on 10th February, Donald Trump provoked the ire of many European leaders by suggesting NATO members who did not meet fundamental spending commitments are not worthy of protection in the face of Russian aggression. This comment was unsurprising given Trump’s track record of being highly critical towards the NATO alliance. Yet, it speaks to a broader debate gripping the transatlantic military alliance over billing and individual states’ contribution, creating a further rift between Europe and America on defence policy. 

The leading condition for NATO membership is a minimum commitment of 2% of GDP to defence spending each year. Poland regularly contributes the most, at 3.9% of GDP, followed by the USA at 3.5%. However, many states — including major European powers such as Germany and France — continue to fail this pledge even in 2023. Indeed, only 11 members were predicted to meet this threshold overall. While Mr Trump’s comments were undoubtedly provocative, they represent a growing American frustration with European apathy toward defence commitments. Beyond Mr Trump, conservative politicians in America question why their country is providing continued military support when other NATO members appear to have no desire to pay their fair share.  

European and American leaders agree that continued unity is necessary to deter Russian nationalism

Indeed, this friction over upholding NATO spending commitments occurs when unity is most required to face Russian aggression. Throughout Europe and North America, President Trump’s comments sparked fierce criticism. In a change of tone, President Biden criticised the notion that the USA would remain a bystander if Russia attacked or invaded a fellow NATO member. With Russia’s prolonged war against Ukraine and the recent questionable death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, there is a sense of pleading desperation for continued American support from European leaders. There is a genuine fear that Russia’s ambitions will eventually collide with a NATO member, and Europe is unprepared for such a prospect. For this reason, European and American leaders agree that continued unity is necessary to deter Russian nationalism. 

Despite this, sentiments about NATO are far from homogenous across Europe, even where there is consensus around its integral part in shoring up security. This is interdependent with ongoing discussions about how much European governments should pledge to support Ukraine, with the EU committing another €50bn to support the war effort in January. These issues are likely to grow more pronounced in the context of the imminent change in leadership. Mark Rutte, the former Dutch PM, is widely expected to take over NATO’s leadership. Mr Rutte, highly regarded across Europe by presidents Trump and Biden, is a popular choice. He is relatively centrist on financial commitment to Ukraine, yet might struggle to unite the various geographic and political factions of NATO states.

While a second Donald Trump win would produce predictable approaches to NATO, it is unclear if Mr Biden would drastically change American policy

Meanwhile, the impending American election might be similarly decisive in scripting NATO’s future prospects, with the Republicans under Mr Trump wishing to reconsider their country’s relationship with the alliance. Mr Biden has faced stark difficulties in passing additional funding for Ukraine through a divided Congress, with many Republicans arguing that spending would be better suited for domestic purposes. The likelihood of a second turn at the presidency for Donald Trump is unlikely to ameliorate divisions within NATO. While a second Donald Trump win would produce predictable approaches to NATO, it is unclear if Mr Biden would drastically change American policy. Since 2011, the American military under President Obama has initiated the ‘pivot to Asia’ initiative to counter growing Chinese regional militancy. In this sense, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic recognise a growing divide on defence priorities, which may never be rectified.  

Despite these concerns, it is unclear what a defence alliance outside of NATO would look like. Any Eurocentric alliance alternative would likely be dominated by hawkish European powers with a proven track record in meeting the 2% commitment but would undoubtedly marginalise members who do not meet this goal. Additionally, the nuclear deterrents held by the UK and France would be seen as pivotal in protecting against Russia or any potential continental security threat. A new European alliance would need to decide how it is governed, either under the EU’s leadership or as a separate multinational enterprise. Other lucrative aspects of NATO, including its infamous Article 5 collective defence clause, would need to be considered if this new alliance were to be taken seriously. If a European coalition were to form, it would settle any debate regarding the lack of strategic autonomy in the current American-led NATO agreement. 

Although clear policy differences dominate discourse around NATO, most European and North American politicians recognise its crucial role in protecting and securing the West. While many acknowledge the alliance is far from perfect, most agree that it is the best security solution currently available. Looking to the future, the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine is likely to be momentous in plotting the future of NATO, perhaps leading financial debates to subsume and corrode the institution. It might also re-energise the need for a military alliance in North America and Europe, stimulating a continued political commitment to the alliance.

Image: Jim Garamone, US Department of Defense

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