NATO under fire
Uncertainity deepens for the Western alliance after Trump blasts NATO allies
U.S. President Donald Trump’s rebuke of NATO allies at a summit last month for not paying a greater share of military costs may have angered some of its members, but it was not the first time this call has been made to European allies.
During the Cold War, when European economies were growing rapidly, the United States had expressed a need for its partners to spend more resources on defense. The matter was pushed to the back burner after the end of the Cold War, when the focus became integrating eastern European countries’ defense, economy and politics with the West.
The expectation that Russia would be unable to recover for a long period after the collapse of the Soviet Union and that security would be comprised of soft threats, such as migration and terrorism, diverted attention from the topic. Despite NATO taking on new missions, its importance diminished. Although Russia’s strengthening and its hostile and sometimes aggressive stance may create a basis for the alliance’s recovery, such a result may not be achieved.
Looking at the dispute from an economic perspective, it appears that the European Union has become a serious competitor for the United States. At the forefront is Germany. The Trump administration believes that the way to stop a decline in the U.S. economy is to introduce trade restrictions. It has also emphasized that it expects more contributions from its allies in defense so that the U.S. government can spend elsewhere and reduce its budget deficit and invest in long-neglected infrastructure.
Since Germany is Europe’s leader and the force behind the EU, these demands have been centered on Germany. Add to that the lack of personal chemistry between Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the disaccord has intensified. Trump’s undiplomatic tweets have dragged public opinion into the matter. The fear is that the relations are becoming more strained.
Cold War stability
It is worth revisiting the period of the Cold War to understand the roots of this new dispute. The Cold War was actually far removed from conflict and instead a time of stability, ensured by the balance between NATO and the Warsaw Pact against nuclear horror. The United States and the Soviet Union possessed enough weapons to annihilate one another a few times over. Should one side attack the other, the target would have still had enough nuclear capability to wreak untold damage against the aggressor. The threat of mutually assured destruction encouraged members of both blocs to instead carry out proxy wars in other regions of the world and avoid confrontation in Europe. This did not preclude a war in Europe.
The sides faced off in Germany, which was divided by the Eastern and Western blocs. West Germany should have been the NATO member that possessed the largest conventional force and military expenditures, but the tacit “German question” restricted the size of its armed forces. Germany had started two world wars to control Europe. In both western and eastern Europe, governments and populations alike both feared Germany.
Neither side wanted Germany to use its economic strength to arm itself further. Germany was sensitive on this matter and sought to avoid inciting both its friends and its foes. And Germany knew that regardless of how much it armed itself, without the U.S. nuclear umbrella shielding it, it could not confront the Eastern Bloc. Expanding its conventional forces would not have stopped the Soviets, but it would have aggravated its allies.
Another benefit of Germany’s timidity in defense was it did not have to invest large resources in that area, which would not have developed the economy. Its investments outside of defense made it easier for the German economy to become the strongest in Europe. When the two Germanys reunited after the end of the Cold War, the burden on the Federal Republic of Germany was far easier for it to overcome.
The German economy became the locomotive for the European Union economy. German products occupied an important place in U.S. markets. For example, German cars overtook the automotive market that the United States had dominated after the war. The German surplus in its balance of payments every year exceeded the entire volume of Turkey’s foreign trade.
Today, it is worth looking at whether the Trump administration is in fact trying to prevent Europe from becoming an economic and political rival. Is it trying to neutralize an EU already shaken by Britain’s impending departure from the bloc? If this is the case, can Europe do anything to stop it?
As new centers of power form around the world and liberal democracies are under threat, it does not make sense for the United States and Europe to engage in such an existential competition. Yet it is not unprecedented for nations to prioritize short-term, petty concerns and mortgage their futures. That’s why it’s possible to see the EU may not have a future as members act in pursuit of such interests.
If the bloc can only progress under German leadership, this may create skittishness among other members. Internal divisions in the West and the end of the European integration process would please Russia, which sees the continuation of integration as a danger.
How should Turkey view these developments? They come at time when Turkish-German relations are strained. Ankara’s disagreements with Washington run deep, but the government here is trying to manage that. There are good reasons for us to watch these developments with trepidation. As the West weakens, Turkey will also become weaker against Russia. Instability in Europe will undermine Turkish security and harm our economic ties. Other negative outcomes that do not yet come to mind may emerge.
Turkey needs to be contemplating these matters, but I fear that we are overwhelmed with other day-to-day problems and are not in a position to design the future, even as the uncertainty deepens following the end of the stability of the Cold War period.