A Way Forward For NATO Allies: Cope With Trump While Preparing for a Post-Trump Future


Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency on an “America First” platform raised the prospect of the new president qualifying decades of U.S. support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), America’s most important alliance. While far-right politicians across Europe celebrated, British Prime Minister Theresa May, hoping to convince Trump to take a more positive attitude toward NATO, advised, “With the threats we face, it’s not the time for less cooperation.”

As I wrote in a 2017 essay for the International Security Studies Forum, candidate Trump disparaged the transatlantic alliance throughout his campaign by suggesting that the United States might not remain committed to collective defense under Article 5, by calling NATO “obsolete” (though he later walked that back), and by taking a generally transactional view of the alliance that appeared to undermine the idea of collective defense. Since taking office, Trump has not gone to those extremes, though his campaign assertions, his insistence to Angela Merkel that Germany still owed “vast sums of money” to the United States and the alliance for its defense, and his seeming reluctance to condemn Russia’s Vladimir Putin have contributed to a persistent sense of unease about the future of the transatlantic relationship.

Now, the allies need to develop a coherent strategy for coping with the demands and unpredictability of the Trump administration and preparing for the future revitalization of the transatlantic relationship. Fortunately, both can be accomplished together. Moreover, Europe has already started taking some of these actions.

Europeans should realize that America’s commitment to transatlantic relations is not based solely on the president’s view. Despite Trump’s dramatic criticisms of the transatlantic relationship, both congressional and public attitudes have remained highly supportive of NATO. While there is certainly room for improving the systems underlying the transatlantic relationship, the alliance remains a practical vehicle for shared defense of interests as well as a key symbol of the Western values of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. Illiberal tendencies on both sides of the Atlantic have made it clear that those values are being challenged. Europe should therefore seek to mitigate the short-term impact of Trump’s disruptive views while responding to legitimate American concerns and build a foundation for the alliance’s future. That future will also depend on whether the European allies are successful in dealing with the challenges posed by domestic illiberal political movements, like those that recently scored a big electoral victory in Italy.

What might such a European “coping-plus” strategy look like? First, European governments ought to use “Trollope ploy” tactics, named for a plot device by novelist Anthony Trollope “in which a woman willfully misinterprets a romantic squeeze of her hand as a marriage proposal.” The Trollope ploy was said to have influenced the Kennedy administration’s handling of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. President John F. Kennedy chose to ignore negative signals from Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev while acting on ones that might lead to resolution of the crisis. In the current circumstances, this would mean ignoring troublesome Trump tweets — which, to some extent, European officials are already learning to do — while picking up on encouraging words from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and other U.S. officials. In spite of Trump’s disruptive statements and distorted understanding of the transatlantic alliance, the United States has continued to re-build its military presence in Europe — actions that may speak louder than words in the long run.

European leaders have discovered that warm praise for the American president and restraint in responding to his more outrageous statements can help keep relationships on track. They should keep up their compliment campaign.

Along more traditional lines, the NATO allies should demonstrate that they are actively supporting the pledge to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense by 2024, with 20 percent of defense spending going to new equipment, research and development. but the goal remains challenging for many allies, and only three allies currently hit the 2 percent target. Progress in this area is important both for coping with Trump and for sustaining American support for the alliance in the long term.

European NATO and E.U. nations should also look for opportunities to make no- and low-cost defense improvements, and to improve intra-European and transatlantic cooperative efforts, for example by enhancing terror-related intelligence sharing operations through Europol, internally and with partner nations. Dealing with terrorist and cyber threats is a growth industry, and the technological competence of some European allies can play a major role in NATO’s response.

When improvements can be demonstrated, they should be publicized. Back in the waning years of the Cold War, the so-called “Euro-group” served as a publicist in the United States for European defense efforts.   Perhaps the European allies should revitalize the concept. The Europeans speaking in this way directly to American politicians, opinion leaders and, importantly, taxpayers, could provide a helping hand to American centrists who believe in reaffirming a strong U.S. role in NATO.

European countries should also take advantage of opportunities to express appreciation for U.S. contributions to their security. The United States has not always made the best decisions when it has come to the use of force, but Europeans should recognize that their freedom and democracy have benefited greatly from the American role in European security. European expressions of this sentiment to American members of Congress and the American public reinforces U.S. support for continued transatlantic cooperation. Over many decades of working on the burden-sharing issue for Congress, it has become clear to me that European appreciation of American sacrifices helps to create a better political environment for dealing with alliance issues.

One key European hedging strategy has been to breathe new life into European defense cooperation. The 2017 agreement on Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) seeks to provide the foundation for more European defense cohesion down the road, though it remains to be seen whether it will succeed. The U.S. response to this initiative has been familiar: It fits the “yes, but” model that I originally described in 2000. “Yes,” the United States wants the Europeans to take more responsibility for defense, “but” it should not in any way undermine transatlantic cooperation. It is not unreasonable for U.S. officials to warn that PESCO should not undermine NATO. But that line should not be carried too far, at the risk of alienating the Europeans and dissuading them from being proactive in improving their defense capabilities.

At the same time, European politicians should be careful not to promise more than can be delivered. In the past, European exuberance over their defense cooperation plans has misled some in the United States to believe that a united Europe is on the near-horizon. It is all too clear that national instincts and motivations remain strong drivers inside the European Union.

Next, as a means both of maintaining Western unity and keeping the door open for cooperation with Russia when it is in the West’s interest, the European allies should continue to endorse a policy of “defense, deterrence and dialogue.” This approach, built on NATO’s Cold War diplomatic strategy outlined in the 1967 Harmel Report, remains a sensible and balanced way to deal with Russia. While the door is kept open to cooperation, it needs to be slammed shut on Russian attempts to undermine Western political systems using cyber weapons as well as old-fashioned covert operations — including attacks on Russian expatriates in Western countries. There are opportunities for Europeans to lead in this area, particularly in taking a firm line towards Moscow as they have done in response to the attacks in the UK. However, a fully effective response to Russian aggression can only be realized with U.S. leadership, going beyond expelling Russian intelligence operatives.

Many of these issues will be on the agenda of the NATO summit scheduled for July 2018. It is, in many respects, time to replace NATO’s 2010 strategic concept, as threats to the alliance have grown and evolved since it was agreed. But the Europeans should avoid doing so just yet. Just as they delayed agreement on the last concept until George W. Bush left office, the allies should be wary of what would come out of the process under a Trump administration. The allies should therefore avoid preparing a new concept until after Trump, while making necessary adaptations in alliance policies and programs.

Finally, as I have recently recommended in my forthcoming book, Transatlantic traumas: Has illiberalism brought the West to the brink of collapse?, Europeans who believe in the value of a healthy transatlantic relationship need also to work on mitigating the circumstances that have created the radical right-wing surge on their side of the Atlantic. Voters have started to see center and center-left parties as ineffective in responding to the problems of the average citizen. This political failure, paralleling a similar one in the United States, grew out of a combination of factors. The Great Recession and the refugee crisis over the past decade created particularly fertile ground in Western Europe for radical populists to turn popular dissatisfaction into fear and political action. In the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, the failure of democratic forces to resolve all the issues that remained in the wake of the Cold War allowed illiberal parties to increase their popularity.

Many of these radical right populist parties and politicians are enemies of both NATO and the E.U., do not accept the system of values represented by “the West,” and express sympathy for Vladimir Putin’s “strong” approach to governance. These characteristics are discussed in detail in my forthcoming book on the threats that illiberalism poses to the West. ?

European centrists need to reestablish themselves as defenders of the average citizen. They need to demonstrate that the key institutions of the West — the E.U. and NATO — remain critically important to the well-being and security of European individuals, communities and nations. Only by reaffirming the importance of liberal democracy and its institutions while containing the rise of radical right-wing populism will Europe be prepared to reestablish a strong transatlantic relationship in the post-Trump era.


Stanley R. Sloan is a visiting scholar in political science at Middlebury College and Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United States. He is author most recently of Transatlantic traumas: Has illiberalism brought the West to the brink of collapse?

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