Transatlantic relations have invariably been at the heart of the Munich Security Conference. The 53rd Munich Security Conference, convened when President Donald Trump was a few weeks into his presidency, offered a unique opportunity to discuss and bridge what could be the biggest division across the Atlantic since the end of the Cold War, and the conference was rightly perceived as a weathervane indicating where the transatlantic relationship is going.
During his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump made a lot of negative comments on Europe, dismissing NATO as “obsolete”, dismissing the EU as reduced to a tool of Germany, and lauding Brexit as a great thing, which unnerved and infuriated America’s European allies.
Probably with this in mind, President Trump sent Vice President Pence, Defense Secretary Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary Kelley on a high-profile visit to Europe, in an effort to reassure European allies. Pence and Mattis both highlighted in their speeches that NATO remained the cornerstone for cross-Atlantic security and reaffirmed the US commitment to NATO. President Trump echoed that, by responding in kind from Florida that he was a fan of NATO.
Regarding military expenses, Pence said that many countries had failed to honor their share of the NATO military commitment and thus eroded the foundation of the alliance. On the other hand, he said the US president counted on allied countries to live up to their commitments, and that it was time to take more action.
At the NATO defense ministers’ meeting in the run-up of the Munich Security Conference, Mattis said NATO countries must scale up their military expenses by year’s end, or the US will pare down support to the bloc. This amounts to an ultimatum to its European allies, which is a rare occurrence in international relations.
While different in their tones, both Pence and Mattis practically sang the same tune: that US commitment to NATO is conditional on increased military expenditures by European allies.
At the Munich Security Conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel explained that Germany would gradually expand military spending to honor its NATO commitment. But for the moment, Germany could not afford to spend more on defense. Germany’s narrative could be construed as an unveiled rebuttal to US demands.
At present, among the 28 NATO countries, only the US, UK, Poland, Greece and Estonia have defense spending that reaches 2% of their respective GDPs.
In spite of the setback at the Munich Security Conference, the US vice president stuck to the theme while speaking at the NATO headquarters in Brussels. Pence again urged NATO members to meet the target of spending 2% of GDP on defense as set in 2014, and accomplish it by the end of 2017.
He warned that it was time for action against empty talk and that US tolerance has a limit.
The trade-off diplomacy pursued by the US underscores that the commitment made by the US is only a bargaining chip to extract concessions. As a matter of fact, the US does not care so much about European security as about squeezing more spending from European allies in order to free up more of its own resources to deal with issues in Asia.
At the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, it was adopted in the summit declaration that the 2% GDP spending target should be met within 10 years. As a signatory, the US lent its endorsement too. So what the Trump administration is doing now is an utter rejection of American international obligations and disregard of its own international standing, in favor of a celebration of Trump’s buzzword “American First”.
We have to take into consideration that most European countries are still reeling from the fallout of the global financial crisis — and struggling with the EU debt crisis, immigration crisis and terrorist attack outbreaks on top of the financial straits they have yet to shake off. Any available cash right now would first be committed to improving citizen livelihoods rather than military expenses. Trump turns a blind eye to this reality by clamoring for more defense spending and forcing compromise from European countries, which lays bare his hegemonic thinking and behaviors.
It is unmistakably clear that the Trump administration failed to evoke any feeling of “reassurance” from Europe. If anything, its policy only aggravates the concern and anxiety on the part of Europe, leaving many European leaders with the lingering sense that the Trump administration is unpredictable and obscure in terms of policy standing, with conflicting messages on key issues. The military spending issue within NATO remains thorny and a solution any time soon is still elusive.
Transatlantic relations are at a crossroads and big question marks about their future loom ahead.