USA and NATO: Who Needs Who?

6 june 2017

Ilya Kravchenko - PhD in political science, RIAC expert

Resume: Speaking about the U.S.–NATO relations, one must take into account that no political initiatives can fundamentally change their basis, namely, ensuring security of European states. However, Washington and its allies in the Alliance may disagree on the kinds of threats and the extent of security measures needed.

Even during the election campaign, Trump questioned the future stability of NATO calling the Alliance an obsolete organization. Moreover, he constantly criticized its member states for not appreciating the assistance of the United States which, in his opinion, was expressed in the supply of military equipment and personnel. In an interview with The Washington Post during the election campaign, Trump stressed that the concept of NATO no longer meets modern realities, and the share of contributions to the budget of the organization should be reviewed.

To be fair, the United States does make a greater contribution to the development of NATO than any other member of the organization. The U.S. spends over 3.5% of its GDP on defense (according to the NATO agreement, countries should spend at least 2%), while in Greece, which comes second in spending, the number is 2.38%. And if you remember that the GDP of the U.S. and Greece are like Jupiter and Earth, the figures start to play quite different colors. By the way, Trump appeals to the fact that everyone must comply with their obligations. And this point will arise in his speeches, tweets and other statements, at a personal meeting with the NATO Secretary General and at the summit.

NATO’s Stance on Moscow

The main goal of the North Atlantic Alliance for a longer period of its existence was to protect itself from a possible threat from the Kremlin. Today, Trump is subject to active criticism, including the issue of building relations with NATO, with reference to "Russia's aggressive policy in Europe."

So, one of the powerful signals to Moscow from the U.S. establishment was John McCain’s tour of the Balkans by John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Forces and a harsh critic of everything Russia-related. His visit to Montenegro took place a day after Trump ratified the protocol on joining this country to NATO. It is home for 650,000 people, and the armed forces consist of 2,000 people. Nevertheless, it is strategically located along the Adriatic coast and is surrounded by members or those aspiring for NATO membership, with the exception of Serbia, which maintains armed neutrality. In addition to Montenegro, there are two more countries that have chances to join the Alliance: Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the Republic of Macedonia. The status of the former is still under consideration, until the authorities settle issues of ownership of certain defense facilities. As for the latter, it is unlikely to join the ranks of new members until it decides on its name with neighboring Greece, which insists on the inadmissibility of the similarity of the country's name with the name of the region within Greece itself.

NATO also mentioned seeing Georgia and Ukraine as future members. However, the armed conflict in Ukraine, as well as the tense and potentially conflict situation between Moscow and Tbilisi, will not allow these former Soviet republics to join the Alliance in the foreseeable future. In this connection, the strengthening of Russian activity in the former Soviet republics, and in the North of Europe especially may well induce NATO to seek closer contacts with Sweden and Finland. But at the moment, there is no consensus in either country on whether they really want to join NATO. However, the experience of Montenegro, where, according to different polls at least half of the population opposes joining the Alliance, says that such obstacles can easily be bypassed if necessary.

Trump’s signing of the document on Montenegro’s accession to the North Atlantic Alliance and the Balkan tour of J. McCain coincided with the visit of the U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to Moscow. Why did Washington do this? First, the authorities of Montenegro accused the Kremlin of attempting a coup that was to occur before the U.S. presidential elections in October, 2016. Western countries, NATO members and the U.S. itself, took this very seriously. After all, it turns out that Russia has not stopped at the ‘annexation of the Crimea’ and intends to go further into the region that it has traditionally considered the sphere of its interests. Secondly, the events of October 2016 influenced the stance of the then presidential candidate from the Republican Party, Donald Trump.

Before that, he had no real grounds, except for the Ukrainian conflict and the spread of terrorism from the Middle East, to strengthen his posture on ‘real effectiveness’ and ‘necessity’ of NATO. Up until this moment, Russia has only expressed its disagreement with the expansion of the Alliance. But from the NATO point of view, ‘an attempt to carry out a coup d'état’ in a country that aspires to become a member only proves the need to expand and protect not only the existing members, but also "democratic states that want to join collective defense." Now, the North Atlantic alliance really had to think about the fact that Russia is able to intervene actively in the sphere of the organization's interests. Therefore, this must be prevented in all ways. As a result, Trump gave his full consent to the Congress on the issue of Montenegro's membership in NATO.

But Trump would not have been Trump if he had not added fuel to the fire and had not scheduled a meeting with NATO Secretary General, J. Stoltenberg, on the day of Tillerson's visit to Moscow. While the U.S. Secretary of State held long talks first with Lavrov and then with Putin, the head of the White House talked with the Alliance’s Secretary General and assured him that the United States and NATO are indivisible elements. A joint press conference came as apotheosis.

The statements made by Trump and Stoltenberg finally dissuaded those who doubted the U.S. commitment to support NATO. Although Trump returned to the thesis that "other member states must fulfill their duties and contribute 2% of their GDP to the defense," he focused on the importance of supporting new members and on promoting Western values and opposition to possible aggression from Moscow. For example, on April 25, 2017, two U.S. F-35 jets arrived in Estonia to participate in NATO military exercises, which for the first time will be deployed in continental Europe. The jets are constantly stationed at the US airbase in Utah and are part of the Pentagon's most expensive armament program, which is estimated to cost around U.S. $400 billion.

NATO is "American"

However, all of the above can be criticized, considering the meetings Trump’s administration had in priority. Initially, on April 5 and 6, a Meeting of foreign ministers of NATO member countries was to be held in Brussels, but the State Department made it clear that Tillerson would not attend it because of Xi Jinping's official visit to Washington. As a result, the State Department approved the candidacy of Deputy Secretary of State, Tom Shannon to participate in the meeting with NATO member countries’ foreign ministers. NATO was puzzled, and after consulting with representatives of the remaining 27 members, agreed to postpone the meeting, so that the U.S. Secretary of State participated in it. Tillerson ended up attending the meeting that was held on March 31, which was convenient for him, and not for the other 27 members of the Alliance.

How can this diplomatic gesture be interpreted? At first glance, this runs counter to the statements and even the actions of the new President. But in fact, this is Trump’s foreign policy vision. Its essence is to demonstratively remind all participants of international relations that the United States is still a "world gendarme" and is able to choose who is who in this system.

Thus, it is NATO that needs the U.S., and not the other way around. Trump is well aware of it and demonstratively expresses his critical remarks about some people and positive ones in relation to others. But he also understands that it is impossible to "make America great again" without the tools to support this greatness – NATO, the traditional U.S. allies (Japan, Israel, etc.) and interventionist economic policies through the largest international financial institutions, and also its own TNCs. He has already met with all key allies, while the economy is mainly engaged in the internal direction. Now the turn of the North Atlantic alliance has come.

The first stage was passed when Trump and Stoltenberg met in person. The second stage ended during the NATO summit in Brussels on May 25, which was attended by the 45th head of the White House. Almost on the eve of the summit in the UK, there was a terrorist attack, organized by Islamic State. Trump could not avoid this event when speaking to the leaders of the Alliance (where, among others, the Prime Minister of Montenegro was also present). The U.S. President addressed the audience: "Terrorism must be completely stopped, or the horror that you observed in Manchester and elsewhere will continue forever." Moreover, in his speech he mentioned "terrorism" nine times, while the word "Russia" sounded only once and then in the proposal that "NATO of the future should pay more attention to terrorism and migration, along with threats from Russia and on the eastern and southern borders of NATO." Yet, despite all the efforts of major European and American media, Russia does not come first in the list of major threats, according to the main beneficiary of the Alliance.

Either way, the U.S. will never leave NATO, and the role and functioning of the organization itself will be under strict critical supervision of Washington.

RIAC

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