Donald Trump’s feelings on NATO are well-known. The US president believes that European allies aren’t spending enough on defence, and has even gone so far as to suggest that the US may not honour its treaty commitments unless EU countries stump up more cash.
Of course, Trump’s remarks have not come completely out of the blue. In 2011, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates warned that NATO could continue along its current trajectory for much longer. There have been significant defence cuts in European Member States since the end of the Cold War, and the US feels it is currently shouldering a disproportionate amount of the defence burden.
Yet could Brexit be an even bigger threat to NATO than Trump’s ambivalence? We had a comment from Eric suggesting that Brexit negotiations could turn ugly, potentially souring UK relations with other European governments. If that happens, Eric wonders if Britain would be happy sending soldiers to fight for countries such as Poland or the Baltic States while British politicians blame Eastern Europeans for taking jobs.
To get a response, we spoke to Bruno Lété, transatlantic fellow for security and defence at The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels. How would he respond to Eric?
[…] I think, personally, that one effect of Brexit will be that London will seek to reinforce its role and commitments to NATO. Why? Because this will be the last remaining international institution where London can have direct interaction on a multilateral level with its European allies. So, in that sense, I do believe that Brexit is good for NATO because I anticipate that Britain will try to play a greater role in the transatlantic alliance.
To get another perspective, we also put Eric’s comment to Paul Taylor, Contributing Editor at Politico and former European affairs editor for Reuters. What would he say?
It’s a very good question. Obviously, if you are living in Poland or the Baltic States, you want a peaceful, harmonious Brexit that firstly preserves the rights and position of workers from your countries who are already living in the UK, and secondly means that those defence links are as close as possible. Now, although Britain is leaving the EU, the prime minister and the whole government have made it very clear they are not leaving Europe.
Britain, I think, will be tempted to overcompensate for leaving the EU by investing more in NATO, and it’s NATO that is in charge of the forward defence of the Baltic States and Poland. If things turn nasty, I think it’s clear that the British will look to work more closely with the Americans. We may see that in the defence industries, in armament production, we may see that also in how they integrate their military; it may be possible they try to integrate more with the US military and less with the European militaries. Does that make a difference for Poland and the Baltic States? Only if America itself shows less interest and less commitment, I think.
Which is potentially worrying for Britain, because US-NATO relations are bumpy at the moment. On this point, we had a comment from Duncan, who suggested that Theresa May is doing her best to shore up the relationship between Donald Trump and NATO. Could that be Britain’s future role?
Well, what we’ve seen so far is that Britain has clearly tried to position itself as an interlocutor between Europe and the United States… When Theresa May visited Donald Trump in Washington last month, she was arguing that the United States is important for NATO, but vice-versa that NATO is important for the United States as well.
So, we do see that the British government is trying to position itself as a neutral party in the transatlantic relationship, at least while the European continent has some concerns about comments made by the new president towards Europe… However, my sense is that the Europeans will want to have their own direct relations with Washington, and won’t feel that they should pass through London to do so.
Finally, what would Paul Taylor say to Duncan’s comment?
Duncan, I’ve never really believed in the ‘bridge’ theory, that Britain will somehow be a bridge between Europe and America. Tony Blair, in his time as prime minister, used that bridge idea before the [second] Gulf War in 2003. And, in fact, Europe split on the Gulf War, with countries like France and Germany and many other continental countries opposing it, while Britain, and some of the Central and Eastern European Member States supported the US invasion of Iraq.
Why don’t I think that Britain is a good bridge? Firstly, because as the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder observed, it tends to be one-way traffic on this bridge. The ‘bridge’ tends to relay what America wants from Europe, not what Europe wants from America. Britain has some influence in Europe, but that influence is going to go down rather than up after Brexit. Britain has little influene in the United States, which is a superpower. Will it have more influence under President Trump, who is very much an ‘America First’ president? That remains to be seen.
So, I doubt that Britain can really play that bridging role. But I think that for its own national reasons Britain will want to put more eggs into the NATO basket, if it can, to compensate for the fact that it’s putting no eggs in the EU basket.
How will Brexit affect NATO? If the Brexit divorce turns ugly, could it weaken the NATO alliance? Will the UK act as a go-between to improve US relations with NATO? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!