US Foreign Policy

Trump's Dangerous Zigzagging

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Friction between Russia and Europe is worse than it has been in years and US President Trump’s ambivalence toward NATO weakens the western alliance.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • NATO’s Article 5 calls on its members to defend each other in the case that one of them is attacked. The only time Article 5 has been invoked was after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
    • NATO allies have committed to increase their defense spending to 2 percent of GDP.
    • US President Trump is currently on his first official trip abroad, which includes stops in Saudi Arabia and Belgium, as well as a NATO and G7 summit.
  • Audio

    Audio

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US President Donald Trump speaks beside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the NATO summit in Brussels, May 25. Source: Reuters

NATO even had trouble presenting a united front at the opening ceremony at its new headquarters in Brussels. Yesterday, when Donald Trump unveiled a piece of the World Trade Center as a memorial to the terrorist attacks in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, the US president wanted to reaffirm his appeal that the alliance should do more in the fight against terror. For the other 27 NATO members, the new memorial is, above all, a reminder of the fact that the events of 9/11 triggered the first and only time that the alliance fell under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.

At that time, the partners rushed to support the US campaign in Afghanistan. Today at NATO, one wonders whether the US under Mr. Trump would be prepared to fulfill its obligation to provide assistance if the mutual defense clause were invoked. It’s Trump’s fault that this doubt hung over his first visit. During his election campaign, he wanted to make support for the Baltic NATO states dependent on whether they settled their NATO bills. Once he was president, he declared NATO “obsolete” – only to take this affront back in mid-April. This has calmed the nerves in Brussels for now. But this White House maverick isn’t trusted. Fears that the United States under Mr. Trump could become an unreliable partner have stoked fresh self-doubt at NATO just when the alliance is needed more than it has been in years.

NATO will only keep the Soviet-nostalgic Putin in check if the US president is fully committed to the country’s assistance obligation to NATO - like all of his predecessors were.

This applies in particular to the need for a credible reaction to Russia’s violations of international law in Ukraine. With his zigzag course Mr. Trump has sown a lot of doubt here too. In August last year, he claimed that the people of Crimea, the territory seized from Ukraine by Moscow in a land grab in 2014, preferred to belong to Russia. But in February, the White House demanded that Russian President Vladimir Putin return Crimea to Ukraine. In the meantime, NATO has made a show of strength on its eastern flank by transferring troops to the Baltic States and Poland.

NATO will only keep Mr. Putin, who appears to be driven by nostalgia for the fallen Soviet empire, in check if the US president is fully committed to meeting America’s NATO obligations – as all his predecessors were.

However, and here Mr. Trump has hit a sore point, the other NATO states must also do more for the credibility of the alliance. That includes specific plans to raise their defense spending to two percent of their economic output by 2024. The times when America alone guaranteed the security of Europe would have come to an end even without Mr. Trump. Even former President Barack Obama had criticized the European “free riders.” But it’s not just about money. NATO needs to change so that it can react more effectively to new threats. This includes the hybrid warfare of the Russians as well as growing dangers from terrorist suicide bombers, as we have just seen in Manchester.

NATO fulfilled Mr. Trump’s wish yesterday by joining the coalition against Islamic State. Berlin and Paris are concerned that this move could entangle the alliance in combat operations. That is why it’s all the more important that the fight against terror is not restricted to the “hard power” of the military. To bomb the IS to rubble in Syria and Iraq is one thing. But suicide attacks caused by young people misguided by Islamic fundamentalism cannot be prevented by cruise missiles.

For that, the NATO partners need a common political strategy, which is nowhere to be seen. Americans and Turks cannot even agree on the role of the Kurds in the crisis region. Adding to all of this, Trump has just forged a one-sided alliance with the Sunni powers around Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, trying to isolate Shiite Iran as a haven of terror. To be sure, the mullahs in Tehran certainly aren’t innocent angels, despite the re-election of the reformer Hassan Rouhani as president. However, IS emerged from fundamentalist Wahhabism which amounts to Saudi Arabia’s state religion. The religious schools or madrasas still foment the spiritual poison that turns  young Islamists into holy warriors. Mr. Trump’s “new” Middle East policy and his call to fight  terror don’t fit together.

If NATO wants to remain a viable alliance, it is not enough to reaffirm its promise “one for all, all for one.” Equally important are strategic vision and dependability. One must doubt whether the unpredictable Mr. Trump is willing and able to do so.

The author is an international correspondent for Handelsblatt. You can reach him at: riecke@handelsblatt.com.

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