Thank you, Donald Trump, for forcing Europe to rethink its own security

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Time to look on the bright side of Trump’s presidency


It’s time to look on the bright side of Donald Trump’s presidency, with Europeans being forced to reconsider policy assumptions that have gone unchallenged for far too long.

The US President’s refusal to mention NATO’s ‘all for one, one for all’ Article 5 at a recent summit in Brussels has convinced European leaders that the United States can no longer be counted on as the cornerstone of the alliance. That’s a shock, but not a surprise.

American and European security concerns have been diverging for almost 30 years, since the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union’s communist bloc. Russia’s assertiveness under its President, Vladimir Putin, is primarily Europe’s rather than America’s problem.

The writing has been on the wall for some time. The Obama administration’s ‘pivot’ towards Asia was a clear sign that, irrespective of party politics, the US no longer sees Europe and its security as crucially important.

And Europe’s security is not about keeping Russia at bay. The unresolved issues over Ukraine and Putin’s adventurism are irritants that, if mishandled, could turn into flashpoints. But Europe’s greatest vulnerabilities lie to its south.

It’s not how much Europeans spend on defence and security that matters so much as what they spend it on

Africa and some parts of the Arab world represent the security threats that should most worry Europeans. A striking shift in the European Union’s thinking, in the European Commission and among the diplomats of the External Action Service, is that economic development aid must increasingly become an integral part of security policy.

The refugee and migrant crisis of 2015-16 rang alarm bells about the immigration pressures that still divide EU member states, and these pressures are again building this year.

Worse, Africa’s population is expected to double to almost 2.5 billion over the coming quarter-century, raising the spectre of tens of millions of unemployed youngsters and their families heading north.

When Donald Trump berated NATO’s European members for free-riding at America’s expense he was half-right. In the five years before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 European countries devoted more than three per cent of their GDPs to defence. Since then, thanks to the ‘peace dividend’ they awarded themselves, that has been halved. To honour their pledged two per cent target they should increase their present collective defence spending of some US$250bn a year by a further $100bn.

Trump was also half-wrong. It’s not how much Europeans spend on defence and security that matters so much as what they spend it on.

And this is where the rethink being forced on Europeans by Trump’s erratic approach to transatlantic relations comes into play. European governments, whether thinking in terms of NATO or the EU’s ‘defence union’ ambitions, must undertake drastic reforms of their military forces.

Reviewing the transatlantic relationship that has delivered a degree of stability for seven decades demands political courage

Tanks and supersonic combat aircraft were essential deterrents during the Cold War years, but are generally unsuited to today’s conditions, and may well be totally useless in the years ahead. Better intelligence and surveillance, heavy airlift and more flexible naval support will be the vital ingredients of tomorrow’s security, as will far less ‘bureaucratised’ military structures. At present, only around two per cent of the EU’s two million uniformed personnel can be deployed in a combat zone.

Reviewing the transatlantic relationship that has delivered a degree of stability for seven decades demands political courage, and the signs are that Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s new President Emmanuel Macron can supply that. A first step should be to seize the initiative and set out a redefinition of European security that takes into account Donald Trump’s lukewarm NATO stance.

A second step could be to enshrine in this new security doctrine the inescapable fact that the Mediterranean region, with its eastern and southern instabilities, are Europe’s growing concerns. More fire-fighting military operations such as those presently in the Sahel will be required of Europe, and economic development will be an even greater challenge.

Chancellor Merkel is championing a ‘Marshall Plan for Africa’, but with less than €10bn earmarked so far from the EU and other sources it falls far short of a rallying cry. Instead, it could be that distaste for President Trump’s antics and his contempt of Europe will do the job.

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