The Stability of NATO Under Trump
On June 20, 2016, U.S. Republican Presidential Nominee Donald J. Trump, in an interview with The New York Times, gave insight towards what U.S. foreign policy under his leadership would look like. Receiving the most attention in the press and on social media was when asked if the United States would respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), as per Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, Trump only gave a definitive “yes” for those states who have “fulfilled their obligation to us….” To a state who has not fulfilled their obligations to the United States, Trump replied, “Well, I’m not saying….”
This response left uncertainty in what his actual policies would be like, with phrases like ‘I don’t want to play my cards,’ or ‘show my hand’ becoming all too common in Trump’s foreign policy statements. And, of course, media supporting the opposition party have a field day with his uncertainty, portraying it as it may as well be the worst-case scenario. At the same time, Trump has left a situation where the creative imagination’s thoughts on ‘what could be’ are being put into practice by foreign policy analysts.
Contrary to most media coverage on the topic, Trump’s statement on the U.S. Article V commitment is not a surefire game-changer in the current European security environment. The only exception would be if Russian President Vladimir Putin takes decisive action in the Baltic soon after a Trump election. Depending on how quickly a Trump Administration could set out a clearly defined policy on the commitment, Russia could turn the Baltic into disarray before a decision is made. And if a Trump Administration established a clear requirement that each Baltic state must meet before the U.S. would come to their defense, there may still exist a window of opportunity for Russia before those states would be able to modify their policies and meet the requirements.
What are these requirements, or what will they be in the future? Commonly quoted are the goals reiterated at the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales. At the summit, NATO leaders agreed that all member states should meet a “guideline” of spending a minimum of two percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, a goal originally conceived in 2006. Of the three Baltic states, only Estonia meets that goal with currently 2.16% of its GDP being spent on defense. Lithuania and Latvia lag behind, spending 1.49% and 1.45% respectively.
If this parameter is part of Trump’s would-be requirement, it makes sense. The physical security of the Baltic states is certainly more vulnerable than that of the U.S. from a Russian ground invasion. The U.S. is separated from Russia on either side by vast oceans and the world’s largest and most well-equipped Navy. Yet, U.S. military expenditures are sitting at 3.61% of its GDP, more than twice that of Lithuania or Latvia. Less than .12% of U.S. military spending go towards Europe, but out of the nearly $680 billion defense budget, that $789 million is quite large when considering that all three Baltic states combined only have about $1.5 billion in their entire defense budgets. And this U.S. spending in the region is only set to continue increasing in the near future. Under an Obama initiative, the U.S. defense budget for 2017 is more than quadrupling military spending in Europe to $3.4 billion. Further, after Obama leaves office, the Pentagon plans to reinstate previous military spending cuts in the region, returning its presence to three armored brigades. What Trump would be doing with making the two percent guideline into a requirement is helping close what some call the widening transatlantic security divide. The policy is meant to leave Europeans with more responsibility for their own security, and rely less on the United States.
There are roadblocks facing Latvia and Lithuania’s goal of reaching the two percent guideline, mostly the economic capacity to support the defense spending. Despite this, the Wales Summit Declaration puts forth a decade-long window for members to reach the guideline, meaning this 'two percent policy' would also include protection until 2024. And both countries expect to reach this goal by 2018 to 2020.
It is hard to imagine the lack of a NATO response in the Baltic when considering current NATO defense policy. At the July 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed the creation of four new multinational battalions in the Greater Baltic region. These battalions demonstrate NATO’s desire to reiterate that an attack on one is an attack on all, in these cases, quite literally. A battalion in each of the three Baltic states will be lead by the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada. The United States is leading the battalion at the vulnerable 'Suwalki Gap' in Poland, and still has considerable assets and personnel across the Greater Baltic Region. Even if a Trump Administration does not want to defend the Baltic, there would be considerable political consequences at home if a Russian assault, which could result in a great loss of American life, was acquitted. If Trump was to decide not to come to the defense of the Baltic, he better make sure no American lives are lost during the assault. Trump’s uncertain policy must first include a complete exodus of the American military from the region. That, or Russian forces should be particularly careful not to fire upon any U.S. personnel, even when being fired upon themselves.
Further, NATO’s multinational forward presence in the Baltic is a deterrent, and not intended to hold off a Russian attack. A RAND Corporation publication outlining wargaming results showed that the Baltic states could be completely overrun by a Russian invasion within 36 to 60 hours. In an interview, Commander of U.S. Army Europe, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges confirmed that a Russian attack “could overrun the Baltic states more quickly than we would be able to defend them.” Besides domestic and international pressure, not responding when their British, German, and Canadian allies are slaughtered would have immense diplomatic repercussions for the United States in its relationship with the entire Euro-Atlantic system.
Whether or not a Trump Administration would immediately decide to come to the aid of the Baltic is less important. Domestic pressures, as well as international cries for help, would inevitably require a significant response of some sorts. Of course, all of this assumes the maintenance of the status-quo in the Euro-Atlantic system. If Trump has the audacity to change the system, the fate of European security may be much more influenced by his handshakes with Putin than anything else. Still, the entire idea of a Russian invasion of the Baltic is a hypothetical, and seen as highly unlikely. Even if Trump was to pull the United States out of NATO, there will continue to exist significant political, military, and diplomatic deterrence to disincentivize any potential Russian threat in the Baltic.
1. David E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman, “Donald Trump Sets Conditions for Defending NATO Allies Against Attack,” The New York Times, 20 July 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/21/us/politics/donald-trump-issues.html?_r=0;
“Transcript: Donald Trump on NATO, Turkey’s Coup Attempt and the World,” The New York Times, 21 July 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/22/us/politics/donald-trump-foreign-policy-interview.html.
2. Wales Summit Declaration, Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Wales, 5 September 2014, http://nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_112964.htm?selectedLocale=en.
3. Funding NATO, 3 June 2015, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_67655.htm.
4. Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries (2009-2016) Communiqué, 4 July 2016, http://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2016_07/20160704_160704-pr2016-116.pdf.
5. Mark Landler and Helene Cooper, “U.S. Fortifying Europe’s East to Deter Putin,” The New York Times, 1 February 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/02/world/europe/us-fortifying-europes-east-to-deter-putin.html;
Rick Lyman, “Eastern Europe Cautiously Welcomes Larger U.S. Military Presence,” The New York Times, 2 February 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/03/world/europe/eastern-europe-us-military.html;
6. Spencer Ackerman, “Pentagon to restore Obama’s troop cuts in Europe to address Russian aggression,” The Guardian, 30 March 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/mar/30/pentagon-restore-barack-obama-troop-cuts-europe-address-russian-aggression.
7. Jan Techau, “The Politics of 2 Percent: NATO and the Security Vacuum in Europe,” Carnegie Europe, September 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/CP_252_Techau_NATO_Final.pdf.
8. Piotr Szymanski, “Between continuation and adaptation: The Baltic states’ security policy and armed forces,” Centre for Eastern Studies, 24 November 2015, http://www.osw.waw.pl/sites/default/files/commentary_190.pdf.
9. Press Conference, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the level of Heads of State and Government, 9 July 2016, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_133276.htm?selectedLocale=en;
Warsaw Summit Communiqué, Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Warsaw, 9 July 2016, http://nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_133169.htm?selectedLocale=en.
10. David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics,” RAND Corporation, 2016, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1200/RR1253/RAND_RR1253.pdf.
11. Von Jochen Bittner, “How dangerous NATO really is: Latest exercises in Central Europe show the Western alliance could not defend the Baltic states against a Russian invasion,” Zeit Online, 29 June 2016, http://www.zeit.de/politik/2016-06/eastern-europe-nato-defence-alliance.