Trump has put NATO on notice with the withdrawal of a big chunk of US forces stationed in Germany. The spat is ostensibly over Merkel’s refusal to spend more than 1.5% of its hollowed-out GDP on defence by 2024.
By alienating one of NATO founding members, US President Donald Trump may have set in motion the eventual dissolution of an alliance that has been the bulwark of the free world against oppressive powers of the East for decades.
Trump pulls out from Germany: End of the road for the NATO alliance?
Close on the heels of scrapping the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, Trump has decided to reduce US troop numbers in Germany. Though the German government has not reacted to the development, officials in both countries have said the move could weaken the trans-Atlantic NATO alliance.
Trump has long been critical of America’s European allies for their overdependence on US forces even as a resurgent Russia resumes air and sea patrols along Europe’s borders. More than 9,500 US troops – out of more than 35,000 based in Germany – could soon be leaving for home unless the Pentagon declines to approve Trump’s directive. Despite White House clarifications to the contrary, the move is widely believed to be a direct snub to German Chancellor Angela Merkel who refused to let Trump host a G7 meeting earlier.
Germany’s defence spending as a percentage of GDP has been well below the 2% mark agreed by NATO member countries in 2014. Other European allies have committed to meeting the goal incrementally by 2024. On the other hand, the US spends more than twice as much on its military at 4% of GDP. This has come in for criticism from Trump who has labelled the disparity as “unfair”.
Current projections show that although Germany is spending considerably more on defence year on year, it is on course to spend just 1.5% of GDP – well short of the 2% goal – by 2024.
Public opinion in Germany is rapidly turning anti-American even as the country has announced plans to buy US F-18 Super Hornet fighter-bombers to deploy its arsenal of US-built nuclear weapons – an agreement that dates back to the Cold War. Merkel can barely contain her disdain for Trump who she has assiduously avoided meeting on visits to the US. The unravelling of ties between the once-close allies has given rise to fears that foreign powers Russia might try to exploit the situation.
Germany is not the only country in Trump’s crosshairs, he has also sparred lately with Canadian PM Justin Trudeau on the issue of defence spending. In a recent media exchange, Trump dubbed Ottawa “fairly delinquent” for not meeting the spending goal. While there is no denying that most European NATO members – except perhaps the UK- have a lot of catching up to do to comply with the stipulation, Trump’s threats have ruffled many feathers in the world’s oldest military alliance. It is the spillover effect on bilateral trade that has Germany worried. Any moves to penalise Germany’s exports to the US – a prospect Trump alluded to last year- could turn a relatively benign dispute into an acrimonious trans-Atlantic conflict.
Merkel’s government, which has devoted significant resources to revitalizing the German economy after the impacts of lockdown, is likely to have little appetite to heed to Trump’s diktats. Germany has spent upwards of 880 billion Euros in two tranches since the outbreak of COVID-19, the largest stimulus package mustered by any European country so far. Trump’s hair-trigger style of diplomacy has caused a lot of consternation in national capitals across the continent with many leaders calling for increased European defence collaboration to build a credible deterrence, independent of the US. This could compromise the ethos on which the NATO alliance was built and alter the security dynamics in Europe.
NATO’s days numbered?
It is all but acknowledged that NATO has never been an alliance of equals. The US – as the underwriter and chief financier of the collective defence of the Eurozone – has long enjoyed considerable influence in matters concerning EU foreign policy and trade. US pressure, spearheaded by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is said to have been a major factor in the UK backing out of a multi-billion dollar 5G telecom deal with Huawei in January 2020.
Watch: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urges the UK to reject Huawei
While UK PM Boris Johnson appeared to be hesitant to endorse the US line initially, he apparently wanted to avoid a confrontation with the Trump Administration even as Brexit was underway. For her part, Merkel has been miffed with Trump for unilaterally pulling out of crucial agreements such as the INF treaty and the nuclear deal with Iran delicately negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama. France President Emmanuel Macron does not see eye-to-eye with the US President on a number of issues either. So far, this was a small price to pay for security that was virtually guaranteed by the presence of US forces on European soil. However, given Trump’s threats and a complex geopolitical milieu, NATO could be losing its appeal as an alliance for the mutual defence of the Western world. With Russia’s subjugation of the Crimea and threats from rogue states like North Korea, there is growing realisation that increased military spending was a strategic priority.
Since Trump took office in 2016, many European governments have agreed to increase military funding.
Countries like Latvia and Romania are already replacing ageing Soviet-era military hardware in bulk, buying everything from fighters to warships to meet NATO standards. If the rift between the US widens, the world could witness the rise of a potential new power centre in due course; a loose federation of EU states, backed by a common army. Improbable as it may seem, the idea of a European Army – first proposed by Macron – has piqued the imagination of many governments across the EU.
If ties between them continue to deteriorate, the EU will be no obligation to play second fiddle to the US and might prefer to chart a more assertive and independent course of its own in international politics. The Trump – Merkel spat could be the last nail in the coffin for an alliance that has grown apart where any reconciliation could at best be a compromise for old time’s sake.