President Donald Trump’s maiden trip abroad presents an opportunity to look for clues about the new administration’s stance toward the Middle East. The trip began just days after U.S. forces struck Syrian regime forces near al-Tanf, Syria, and six weeks after the president ordered cruise missile strikes against the Shayrat air base near Homs. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Trump inked an arms deal with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and delivered a major address to assembled Muslim potentates (with the notable exception of Iran’s). Thereafter, he flew to Israel to underscore his commitment to the U.S.-Israeli alliance.
All of this is music to the ears of America’s traditional allies, who hope that these moves are an opening salvo to a broad-based U.S. effort to roll back Iran. Trump’s high-stakes trip is off to a good start. Now, however, comes an even more delicate mission: The back-end of the president’s nine-day tour takes him to an increasingly skeptical Europe. He is set to visit Italy and the Vatican on Wednesday, before departing for Belgium.
As much as ever, Europeans are sensitive to the vicissitudes of American domestic politics. Initially bewildered by last November’s presidential election, many European leaders have since developed outright contempt for the new president. This week’s meetings in Europe constitute a major moment, and opportunity, to reverse that slide. Trump should seize the chance by recasting his view of transatlantic defense and security.
For years, Trump has lasered in on the need for more balance in U.S. alliances. In Europe, his focus has been largely on Germany, the country through which most European decisions are channeled. Today, Germany’s GDP accounts for almost one-third of the Eurozone’s and more than one fifth of the European Union’s. And yet, understandably scarred by its twentieth-century history, Germany abjures strategic debate in favor of a moral multilateralism. This has left a gap in the heart of Europe. French action in the Sahel, British assistance to Iraq, and Baltic deterrence against Russia cannot compensate for the German reluctance to project power abroad. Now is the time for Germany to take on a greater leadership role.
However, it will not be easy for Trump to convince Germany to step up its game. The leaders of the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), have made clear that they intend to use defense issues as a cudgel against German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the fall election. Sigmar Gabriel — until recently leader of the SPD and now the minister of foreign affairs — told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at his first NATO meeting in March that spending 2 percent of GDP on defense was neither “reachable nor desirable” for Germany. More recently, the SPD’s new leader and candidate for chancellor, Martin Schulz, criticized more defense outlays for risking the creation of “a highly armed military at the heart of Europe.” Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the president of Germany and a previous SPD boss, explained this logic last year, warning that such a presence could be construed as “saber-rattling and warmongering.”
It is a testament to Merkel that she has endorsed the 2 percent threshold in the face of such pressure. True to form, the most reliable pro-American officials, from Peter Altmaier to Norbert Röttgen, are all members of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Even so, Germany contributes only 1.2 percent of GDP to defense under Merkel’s leadership, and her plans for reaching 2 percent are staggered over such a distant time horizon as to be rendered meaningless. No one I spoke to in Berlin last week said it would happen.
In Europe this week, therefore, Trump should consider new approaches to nudging Germany and the continent forward. For starters, rather than focusing solely on the 2 percent threshold, the Trump administration should encourage Europeans to coordinate their spending in the context of NATO to avoid duplication and get the greatest bang for their buck. If European countries begin to invest more narrowly in interoperable niches tied to a renewed, alliance-wide commitment to Article V of NATO’s founding treaty, the alliance will become a leaner and meaner force. Because such a system creates vulnerabilities for individual countries, the key is absolute assurance of an alliance response to external aggression, which Trump should reiterate. German Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen has already signaled German interest in a similar concept, albeit within the context of the EU.
Von der Leyen has also proposed an “activity index” that includes spending on exercises as a means of improving Germany’s net defense spending score. Similarly, her colleague, Gabriel, has sought to expand the defense spending criteria to include development assistance, despite NATO’s identity as a military alliance. The Trump administration should be wary of such proposals, but it could also co-opt aspects of them to push America’s NATO partners forward. For example, the 2 percent threshold incentivizes countries to engage in such budgetary gimmicks as, say, transferring the salaries of state employees onto military payrolls. By emphasizing a system that measures specific programs rather than budget baselines, the Trump administration would strengthen the alliance.
Yet the military capabilities of America’s NATO allies are of limited use if they are not accompanied by political will. In this arena, Germany’s pacifism is a major obstacle. As a first step, the United States should continue chipping away at NATO’s system of so-called national caveats. If the alliance is to truly achieve more balance, European troops must run the risk of military operations when they deploy to places like Afghanistan and Iraq. For example, in addition to training the Kurdish Peshmerga against the Islamic State — a laudable effort — Germany should authorize its troops to accompany their partners to the front lines as needed. Such small steps, over time, may lead to a more forward-leaning posture.
For years, Trump loudly expressed skepticism about Europe. This week, leaders filled with a similar degree of doubt about the United States will receive him. In the end, however, both sides know that there is no viable alternative to the transatlantic alliance. Propelled by the momentum of his Middle East tour, Trump should cap off a successful week by proposing to U.S. allies new ideas for defense — starting with Germany.
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