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Revisiting NATO Post-Trump

29 May 2017
By Will Leben
Photo: @jackflackdaily

Donald Trump’s recent meeting with European leaders in Brussels raised questions about the ongoing role of NATO, with Angela Merkel subsequently commenting that the European Union may no longer be able to rely on US protection. What does it mean for Australia’s engagement?

In January, I offered a brief reflection on the renewed challenges facing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) following the election of US President Donald Trump. I tentatively suggested that, with a potential European-American schism emerging within NATO, the value of a relationship with NATO would shift for Australia. Rather than acting as an adjunct to the US alliance, Australia-NATO ties might increasingly focus on bilateral and multilateral opportunities with European states, many of which Australia would struggle to otherwise engage. Given the substantial developments in the first six months of 2017 and President Trump’s recent meeting with NATO leaders in Brussels, it is worth revisiting the topic.

The Trump administration has sent mixed foreign policy signals since taking office; its stance towards NATO has been no exception. Vice President Mike Pence’s February assurances that the US remains committed to European security accompanied words supportive of the president’s approach to Russia and criticism of NATO military spending. This has been unsurprising: as Michael Petrou observed in his article in Australian Outlook, Trump flip-flopped on NATO even during his campaign.

The president’s first official trip to Europe was tense, due to the broader context within which it occurred and Trump’s words in Brussels. Analysts were quick to note the clear contrast between Trump’s warmth toward dubious authoritarian figures in the Middle East and open criticism of traditional American allies within NATO.

Most prominently, the president reiterated his criticism of low military spending levels among NATO members and refused to affirm American commitment to the Article 5 collective defence provision. Subsequent comments by National Security Advisor HR McMaster that the president is, in fact, committed to these provisions are unlikely to wholly assuage the concerns of NATO leaders, especially against the backdrop of ongoing suspicions about the relationship between members of the Trump administration and Russia.

Angela Merkel conceded that EU states may no longer be able to rely on the US. French President Emmanuel Macron has also criticised Trump, comparing his approach to international relationships to those of presidents Putin and Erdogan. While the election of Macron has not solved ongoing problems with the European project, the presence of strongly pro-Europe leaders in both Germany and France does, however, telegraph real willingness by the EU to act more independently of the US.

Given the permanent political crisis that is the Trump presidency, we should look first to US domestic politics as a guide to American foreign policy decision-making. In this light, the president’s combative rhetoric towards allies is unlikely to cease, since it plays to Trump’s domestic supporters. Certainly, Trump’s finale in Sigonella, Italy, in front of military personnel, celebratory of a home-run overseas trip, seemed to reflect this priority.

American behaviour within NATO may chill the American relationship with key players such as France and Germany. As such, Australia should emphasise European ties facilitated by an Australian presence in Brussels, both in a military-to-military sense and as defence diplomacy, an adjunct to threadbare Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade networks.

Yet Australian access to NATO, both in terms of mere visibility as well as decision-making influence, was initially driven and facilitated by the US. It was desirable for the US that Australia have a seat at the table while it sought larger contributions for the war in Afghanistan from European allies. Five-Eyes intelligence access also meant that Australia was often privy to key American information before European partners, at times causing resentment. While the American alliance still holds clear primacy in Australian foreign policy it may be difficult for Australia to de-link itself from the US within the NATO context.

Australia’s recent re-commitment to Afghanistan, even if only in the very small addition of 30 soldiers, means that engagement with NATO, which directs that war, will continue to be necessary. Other reasons for Australia’s continued engagement with NATO include its commitment to combating Islamic State efforts and other projects of interest, such as cyber security. In the near future, managing a potential fissure between European NATO members and the United States will be a key challenge for Australian diplomats and military officers.

Will Leben is a junior officer in the Australian Army. This work is his own and does not represent the views of the Australian government, Department of Defence or Army.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.