Commentary: Could Trump actually be good for European defense?

Even as President Donald Trump described NATO as “obsolete” barely a week before taking office, the United States was completing its largest move of troops and armor to Europe in decades. Other NATO states, meanwhile – particularly those closest to Russia – were also falling over themselves to pledge their own forces and recommit themselves to the Atlantic alliance.

A U.S. soldier prepares for unload an M1 Abrams tank which will be deployed in Latvia for NATO's Operation Atlantic Resolve in Garkalne, Latvia February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

More recently, the president has said he “strongly supports” the bloc – he will meet its leaders on a May trip to Europe – and said he was simply trying to get alliance members to pull their weight.

The Trump presidency represents a paradox for Europe. On one level, his election – indeed, his entire political existence – can appear an almost existential threat to many of the postwar structures, assumptions and worldviews that have defined the European continent. At the same time, Trump and his potential impact on Europe may provide just the impetus the continent needs to redefine itself.

Trump’s embrace of Russia and questioning of NATO – particularly his criticism of U.S. allies for doing too little for their own defense – has had a profound effect. Even before Trump hurled himself on to the U.S. political stage in 2015, eastern and northern European states concerned about Russia were already beginning to ramp up their own defense spending. The idea that the United States might no longer be the reliable partner it has been in the past, however, has had a powerful motivating effect.

When NATO nations met in Warsaw last summer in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, many at the top of the alliance were bracing themselves for the prospect of a Trump victory, even if they did not truly believe it would happen. The entire NATO European defense posture concocted that summer, in hindsight, appears to have been designed with him in mind – “Trump-proofed”, if you will.

For a start, that meant rushing U.S. forces – and particularly, heavy equipment – to the region before the inauguration, making it much less likely that the new occupant of the Oval Office might cancel or scale down deployment. The first two weeks of January saw the arrival of over 1,000 pieces of equipment – including M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks – in Europe from the U.S. 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. Judging by the pictures, most were still in the desert camouflage they had been painted in at their previous base, Fort Carson in Texas.

Those troops will be predominantly based in Poland, although at any given time some will be exercising further east in the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Those three countries – part of the USSR until 1991, but now NATO members – are regarded as the most exposed in the alliance. All three have significant Russian-speaking populations, leading to fears that – as in Ukraine – Moscow may destabilize and attack them.

The U.S. military presence in Europe is arguably the most important deterrent against Russia – Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to want to risk getting into a shooting war with the United States, not least because together the two countries have by far the largest number of nuclear weapons in the world. Most of the troops deployed in the Baltic states as part of NATO’s “Enhanced Forward Presence”, however, will be from other NATO countries.

These will include a British-led battle group in Estonia and equivalent-sized Canadian and German-led forces in Latvia and Lithuania respectively – including personnel from a range of other NATO states including France, Belgium and Denmark. This week, the Czech Republic became the latest European NATO country to pledge forces to in the area

Sweden and Finland, both non-NATO states that are members of the European Union, have also quietly increased their level of defense integration with both the wider alliance and the nearby Baltic states in particular. It is precisely the kind of European contribution to defense that Trump was complaining did not exist during the campaign.

Much of this, of course, would have happened anyway. Even if Trump had not won the election, the platform he campaigned upon was enough to get many European states – as well as other U.S. allies in Asia – worried that Washington might shortly enter a period of isolationism. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Britain’s Brexit referendum have provided an alarming reminder that one should not take for granted many of the previous assumptions about how European state-on-state politics might work.

Trump may now be recommitting himself to NATO – British Prime Minister Theresa May at least got him to say as much on her trip to Washington last month. Incoming U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis made it clear during his confirmation hearings that he continues to view Russia as a serious threat.

Many in Europe and Washington, however, continue to worry that Trump might give away too much in some kind of “grand bargain” when he meets Putin later this year, perhaps on missile-defense or some other area.

That, of course, may encourage other NATO states to work together all the harder. But it may not be enough – Trump continues to say he doubts the ongoing value of the European Union or European single currency, and the collapse of either of them would further weaken Europe’s ability to manage and defend itself.

The very fact of Trump’s election, meanwhile – and particularly his attempts to stem arrivals of migrants and visitors from seven majority Muslim states – may also give new heart and credibility to Europe’s far right. Success for them in French and German elections in particular could undermine Europe’s ability to work together on a host of topics, including defense.

Russia is watching closely. Russian-speaking separatists in Ukraine have recently launched a renewed offensive, with little response from Washington. Moscow’s military capabilities might have grown in recent years but they do have limits.

Russia’s military could overrun the whole of non-NATO member Ukraine. Controlling the country, however, would be a different matter – which perhaps explains why it has not happened.

Even a limited NATO-Russian war in an area like the Baltic states could prove even more disastrous. Russian planners had evolved a somewhat terrifying doctrine of “de-escalatory strike”, the strategy of using a single atomic weapon – perhaps aimed at an individual city, military outpost or even ship – to end a conventional military conflict by intimidating the West. A more predictable U.S. president, they appear to have thought, would choose not to trigger Armageddon by responding with their own nuclear forces.

In the era of Donald Trump, however, such assumptions seem almost impossible. The current U.S. president clearly represents the opposite of what most U.S. or European defense thinkers might have wished for. But that doesn’t mean he might not have a positive effect.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. @pete_apps

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.