As Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine reaches its second anniversary this month, NATO troops will conduct Exercise STEADFAST DEFENDER, the largest alliance drill since the end of the Cold War. It is designed to send a message that Europe and the United States remain united and determined to defend their territory together.
Ever since the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in April 1949, the alliance it created has been the bedrock of Western strategy in Europe. The coming years, however, may see those assumptions overthrown – particularly if Donald Trump returns to the White House this November.
There are signs he already has the alliance in his sights. In a website post last March, Trump vowed to “finish the process which began under my Administration of fundamentally reevaluating NATO’s purpose and NATO mission”. In October, Rolling Stone magazine reported he was considering either leaving or moving the US into a “standby” position in the alliance, with the implication that would involve withdrawing troops or playing a much less active role.
His campaign team have refused to elaborate. John Bolton, Trump’s one-time adviser and now one of his greatest critics, has repeatedly predicted a second Trump term would see the US president attempt to quit NATO altogether. It is an option aides say Trump openly discussed several times during his first spell in office, only dissuaded by a concerted campaign from NATO’s leadership and senior US officials within his own administration.
In a second term, the restraining influence of foreign policy and defence heavyweights such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is likely to be significantly reduced. These officials lobbied furiously to maintain US commitment to the alliance, with the result that the Pentagon actually increased its military commitments within Europe during Trump’s time in office.
Now, however, Trump has declared himself at war with what he calls the US “deep state”, including much of its military, diplomatic and intelligence community. While a few key individuals including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo look likely to return, early signs are that the foreign policy of a new Trump administration may be much more unpredictable.
Trump would not find quitting NATO particularly easy – last year, Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic counterpart Tim Kaine attached an amendment to the Pentagon budget bill requiring any decision to leave the alliance be endorsed by Congress. Still, the political mayhem of any second Trump term in Washington will put the onus much more on NATO’s European members to both shape the relationship and defend the continent.
During Trump’s first term, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg – due to step down at NATO’s Washington leaders summit this July – was regarded as a master at managing the US president. Some European diplomats credit his approach – dubbed “Trump whispering” – with saving the alliance, persuading the unpredictable billionaire that his concerns over Europeans “not paying enough” to defend themselves were having an effect.
European states have upped their game over the last decade, starting after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and considerably intensifying after February 2022.
According to NATO’s own figures, by mid-2023 the number of European NATO nations spending more than the alliance-recommended 2% of GDP on defence had reached 11, the most since the end of the Cold War. Several European nations – particularly the Baltic states and Poland – have also committed similar amounts of money and equipment separately to supporting the war effort in Ukraine, arguing that the more damage they can do to Russia now there, the longer it will take for the Kremlin to re-emerge a conventional military threat to Eastern Europe.
In Vilnius last summer, NATO leaders signed off war plans that tell each country what resources and forces they are expected to provide. Those require multiple European states to increase military capabilities – but they also assume the US will continue to provide the backbone of the alliance.
If Trump were to quit NATO, that would need to shift, with NATO’s European members showing they could fill the gap. Last year, both Germany and Canada announced a substantial increase in their commitment to NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) forces in Lithuania and Latvia. That new larger presence would significantly complicate any Russian efforts to punch from Belarus across Lithuania to Russia’s coastal Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic, closing the so-called “Suwalki Gap” and cutting off the Baltic states from the rest of Western Europe.
Last year, Britain chose not to follow Germany and Canada in similarly enlarging the battle group it leads in Estonia, now arguably the most exposed of the Baltic states. British and Estonian officials claimed the decision was taken jointly, but it came on the heels of ongoing reports of sometimes-poor relations between UK and Estonian defence officials – and a year after the Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas described the UK-led NATO force in her country as insufficient to stop it “being wiped from the map”.
Former UK defence secretary Ben Wallace’s unsuccessful campaign to succeed Stoltenberg as NATO’s civilian chief appeared to be another sign of dwindling UK influence – both US and European officials made it clear that they wanted someone from an EU member state. Relations between the alliance and the European Union have oscillated significantly in recent history, but the bloc looks set to become ever more important in Europe’s defence.
While the EU has nothing like NATO’s sophisticated military command and control systems, its ability to set and change budget rules arguably gives it more influence than NATO itself when it comes to encouraging European states to increase spending. And while the EU has significantly missed targets in encouraging European industry to increase artillery shell production in support of Ukraine, evidence suggests that there is a rising appetite in member nations for it to play a larger military role. Focus groups conducted last year by the Friends of Europe think tank showed some young Europeans saying that in, the event of a major war, they would be much happier being conscripted into a pan-European military than those of their own countries.
But a renewed Trump administration is not the only current challenge facing the NATO alliance. With 31 members, it is becoming much more common for North Atlantic Council meetings to be deadlocked, while Turkey’s repeated delaying actions to stop Sweden joining the alliance have become a particular embarrassment.
Britain may be out of the EU, but the UK sits at the centre of two military formations seen as potentially critical in any fight with Russia, should NATO structures fail. The first is the Joint Expeditionary Force, founded in 2014 comprising the UK, Netherlands, Nordic and Baltic states. Its charter explicitly prevents any one nation within it blocking others from taking action, allowing it to move forces faster and take action if other structures such as NATO cannot.
The UK also provides the bulk of staff and basing for the headquarters of NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, which has been critical to coordinating past NATO deployments in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. In the event that NATO were unable to agree to fight, some eastern and central European states are already talking terms about “kicking out” personnel from nations that refused to “play”. Using the ARRC is a central component of any military response.
This year, the UK is also providing the core for NATO’s Very High Readiness Task Force, with some 6,000 troops ready to deploy at short notice in the event of any crisis. Thousands more UK troops and one of Britain’s two aircraft carriers will also join the NATO Steadfast Defender drills.
The centre of gravity of European defence, however, is moving inexorably towards the mainland. NATO’s largest air and sea exercises last year were pointedly German-led, albeit with significant US forces. The government in Berlin has moved to reduce its dependence on Russian gas and stepped up support for Ukraine, with German armament firms looking to open factories within that country. In the summer, Germany finally vowed to match the NATO defence spending target of 2% of GDP – although officials soon rolled back from that explicit promise.
France has always had more complex relations with NATO – but as mainland Europe’s sole nuclear power, has always believed it had its own responsibilities for Europe-wide defence. That includes developing its own hypersonic nuclear capable cruise missile alongside its four ballistic missile submarines.
Such capabilities may be more important than ever in the years to come. Regardless of what happens with Trump in November, the odds are clearly rising of a future US administration turning isolationist in a way not seen since the 1930s. Even more mainstream voices increasingly argue the Pentagon should pull back in Europe to prioritise confronting China, and particularly deter an invasion of Taiwan.
From the pandemic to Ukraine and Gaza wars, the first half of the 2020s have been a rollercoaster. For those defending Europe, the second half of the decade and beyond could be more dangerous yet.
Peter Apps is author of Deterring Armageddon: A Biography of NATO (Wildfire, £25)