Watching for Signs of NATO’s End of Times


These days, Europe’s NATO observers are a bit like members of a doomsday cult waiting for the end of times. Many are bracing for this week’s NATO summit with grim determination, all the while counting down to the apocalypse by collecting the insults that President Donald Trump is lobbing at NATO. Within a week, he has proclaimed that the alliance is “as bad as NAFTA” (the North American Free Trade Agreement that Trump loves to hate), that “NATO is killing us” and that the European Union is “as bad as China.” And, of course, there was his already infamous statement at a rally in North Dakota late last month: “Sometimes our worst enemies are our so-called friends and allies.”

Only the most devoted NATO fans are likely to know the alliance’s official motto, “animus in consulendo liber” – a phrase so obscure that even NATO admits it doesn’t have a satisfactory translation (what does “man’s mind ranges unrestrained in counsel” even mean?). But almost everyone is familiar with the alliance’s unofficial motto, coined by the first NATO secretary-general, Hastings Ismay: “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Today, however, European attitudes are much more complex than Ismay’s tripartite formulation. In April and May, the European Council on Foreign Relations sought to track the views of political elites in European Union member states through a survey of researchers that incorporated interviews with more than 150 policymakers and analysts, along with extensive research into policy documents, academic discourse, and media analysis. This scorecard suggests that stakeholders in the EU member states, 22 of which are NATO members, – disagree – in some cases with one another, but almost always with Trump – on each vector of this once-unifying narrative: the role of the United States, Russia, and Germany.

To Keep the Russians Out

Just after the NATO summit, Trump will head to Helsinki to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. As has become common with Trump meetings, it is completely unclear what might come out of this summit, or even what the U.S. policy is going in: “We’ll be talking about world events. We’ll be talking about peace. Maybe we talk about saving billions of dollars on weapons, and maybe we don’t.” Reports have surfaced suggesting that Trump could accept the Russian annexation of Crimea – after all “everyone speaks Russian there.”

This is extremely bad news for the European members of NATO, for whom Russia has become the biggest headache. For many countries in Europe, an uneasy neighborly relationship with Russia has developed – one that involves Europeans accepting Russian meddling in their political affairs. Our research shows that since the annexation of Crimea, elites in E.U. member states are – on balance – perceiving Russia as the second-most threatening actor to Europe, after Islamic terrorists. However, the survey also pointed toward problematic diverging views about Russia within the European Union. While interviewees representing seven countries regard Russia as their top security threat (Estonia, Romania, Lithuania, Poland, Finland, Germany, and the United Kingdom). and six more as a significant threat, five predominantly southern countries view it as no threat at all (unsurprising given their relative geographical removal from Russia). Working out how to confront Russia given these disagreements is a major challenge for the European Union. And Trump’s catering to Putin is not helping, as it gives cover to those Europeans who are more skeptical of the need to counter the Russian threat.

To Keep the Americans In

The United States remains a crucial contributor to Europe’s security, both through NATO and as an independent actor. This is considered so important by many E.U. member states that, per the survey, 13 of them would be willing to make unspecified concessions to ensure that the United States remained “in” Europe.

Trump, however, sees the U.S. presence in and cooperation with Europe as a zero-sum game in which the United States is losing. “It will become increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries do not share NATO’s collective security burden while American soldiers continue to sacrifice their lives overseas or come home gravely wounded,” Mr. Trump wrote in a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, conveniently overlooking the fact that the one time the alliance invoked the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article 5, its collective defense provision, was following the 9/11 attacks. In a private White House meeting in March with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, Trump reportedly joked about adopting the Swedish model of NATO cooperation (Sweden is not a NATO member and partners with the alliance on a case-by-case basis).

If Trump continues this way, the transatlantic problem of U.S. involvement in NATO may eventually be replaced by another transatlantic problem: Europe viewing the United States as a threat. This might sound farfetched. Yet, already, the political establishments of five European Union member states believe that the United States is “somehow a threat” or even a “moderate threat.” According to ECFR’s survey, that number will likely almost double in the next ten years, from five to eight member states. Asked to assess how they would have answered the same question in 2008, not one respondent said they would have assessed the United States to be a threat.

To Keep the Germans Down

NATO was created as the continent recovered from the aggression of Nazi Germany. As such, one of the alliance’s concerns was to ensure that Germany would not be able to again take over the continent – by among other ways, binding it in the military alliance. Concerns about Germany, however, have changed over time. Today, the country is generally criticized for underperforming in the area of collective security.

Trump has shown a weird fascination with Germany, the land of his grandfather. No country has had to endure as many of his attacks. Trump’s anti-German rhetoric and protectionist trade policies have damaged “export world champion” Germany more than any other E.U. country. German exports to the United States have already decreased by 10 percent since last year. Now, Trump may or may not be threatening to withdraw the 35,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in Germany. (That this is likely to hurt American interests even more than Germany’s is another story.) He is also threatening Germany’s economic well-being through threats about car tariffs. One would think that Trump could get behind the idea of “keeping the Germans down” – although at the same time he has been scolding Germany for not investing enough in defense.

The Europeans’ view is much clearer: They want to see Germany strengthened. ECFR found that respondents from 15 E.U. countries would “highly welcome” Germany upgrading its armed forces, increasing its defense spending, or participating more in military missions. No E.U. member states expressed concern about Germany doing so. Among ruling European parties, only Poland’s Law and Justice cultivates fears of Germany. Even so, our correspondent found that many Polish policymakers and analysts would like to see Germany increase its military spending as a contributor to NATO. Also, a striking 25 out of 27 E.U. countries name Germany as one of their “most important partners in security.” Trump is thus creating a transatlantic rift between the United States and the country that most Europeans seem to see as a crucial partner.

The clock to doomsday is ticking. Many Europeans’ main source of reassurance at the moment amounts to “maybe it won’t be as bad as we think.” Maybe. But under Trump, the United States is taking positions that are fundamentally opposed to those of many NATO’s European member-states. If this continues, it will be increasingly difficult to keep the alliance together in any meaningful sense.

Rather than the widely discussed predictions of clashes at the upcoming summit, a different, subtler kind of doomsday might be approaching – one that does not involve major headlines about Trump’s blusters or blunders but, rather, a drifting apart of the United States and its European partners. One answer to this needs to be the building up of European capabilities. Our research suggests that, though the details will have to be worked out, in principle, a stronger, more capable Europe is something that most European members of NATO can agree on. That alliance’s motto will certainly feature a provision on dealing with Russia, and might encourage Germany to be more engaged. But whether it will ask the United States to remain involved or focus at keeping an increasingly adversarial United States at bay, will depend on Trump and his administration’s actions – at the NATO summit and beyond.


Ulrike Franke is a Policy Fellow in the London office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and part of ECFR’s New European Security Initiative. She works on German and European security and defense, the future of warfare, and the impact of new technologies, such as drones and artificial intelligence.

Image: NATO