Calm Down, Everyone. America is Still Committed to Europe’s Defense

May 25, 2017

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

After indications earlier this week that President Donald Trump would use his attendance at today’s unveiling of the new NATO headquarters in Brussels to pledge his commitment to Article 5 – the collective defense clause and “heart” of the transatlantic alliance – many are expressing shock that he did not do so during his formal remarks. But in the event of an Article 5-level incident occurring in Europe, odds are that American forces will be involved one way or another by the sheer fact that they are already stationed there.

Some may argue that the lack of a formal endorsement will lead Russia’s Vladimir Putin to test the alliance’s resolve. But as Secretary Jens Stoltenberg noted during his post-meeting wrap up with media, “facts on the ground are the strongest possible commitment to the alliance.”  For now, at least, U.S. actions still speak louder than words.

America’s allies in NATO are undoubtedly disappointed (and understandably so) with the tenor of the president’s remarks. After telling Middle Eastern countries last weekend that he was “not here to lecture,” Trump’s blunt comments today on burden sharing certainly sounded like a rebuke of America’s allies. The facial reactions of the other NATO leaders during Trump’s comments were cringe-worthy.

But while the politicians and diplomats in Brussels and various other NATO capitals look to discern what, if any, future changes to the alliance will follow from Trump’s lack of an explicit endorsement of Article 5, it is important to remember that the principle of collective defense is implicit in how NATO operates. Operationally, nothing has changed.

From my meetings at various NATO installations in Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland these past two weeks, there has been no discernable sense of alarm about Trump’s rhetoric or the credibility of the U.S. commitment to the alliance. Out of nearly two dozen interviews with NATO military personnel from the 14 different nations with personnel here, not a single person I spoke with expressed doubt that the Americans would come in the event of an attack on a NATO member state.

In fact, the Americans are already here, serving on the frontlines of NATO’s eastern flank – both in the new NATO Force Integration Units charged with coordinating the arrival of the alliance’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force in the event of a crisis, and as part of Enhanced Forward Presence, the alliance’s newest deterrence measure. In its capacity as the framework nation for Battle Group Poland, the U.S. Army has had some 1,000 soldiers based in Orzysz, Poland since April 2017.

Then there’s Saber Strike 17, the U.S. Army Europe annual exercise, which this year is focused on training and exercising the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Groups and will take place in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland from May 28 to June 24. In other words, the American commitment to the defense of Europe is tangible.

So, for now, don’t expect to see changes. The planning cycle for NATO exercises is almost two years long. The real question, of course, is whether things will change in the medium- to long-term. But it’ll be months (if not years) before we know that. And, when it comes to reading the tea leaves, the best indication will be found in defense budgets – both in Washington, and other NATO capitals, not in speeches. Yes, words matter. But NATO, like any large organization, doesn’t turn on a dime.

In the meantime, the collective defense commitment is implicit in the NATO Force Structure. American servicemen serving in Poland and the Baltics today are performing the same role they did in Berlin during the height of the Cold War. The location of these troops may have changed but Thomas Schelling’s tripwire is still in place.

 

Sara Bjerg Moller is an Assistant Professor at the School of the Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University. She works on military alliances and is currently conducting a tour of NATO’s new installations in Eastern Europe.

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at warontherocks.com/subscribe!