In his recent meeting with the Europeans, President Donald Trump created a rift with Europe and NATO by denouncing the terms of trade with Europe and by demanding that NATO members contribute their fair share to the organization’s expenses.
The tensions that arose as a result of Trump’s declaration set off speculation that perhaps the almost 70-year-old Western alliance could unravel. Although I do not believe that such an alliance would unravel so easily, I find criticism of Trump’s attitude justified. At the time Russia and China are rising as competing powers for world influence and both actively support authoritarian governments and illiberal elected leaders all over the world, showing a public schism between world democracies is not a desirable scenario. Furthermore, a joint too-friendly appearance with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, gave the impression–right or wrong–that Putin’s world crusade to stop Western influence and the spread of democracy is succeeding.
However, there are a lot of important issues that threaten NATO and the Western alliance that require a tough approach by the U.S. and they should have been raised.
First, in terms of NATO, we are facing a serious problem where certain NATO members are deviating from the Western alliance. Such is the case of Turkey, whose president Recep Tayip Erdogan has completely joined Putin’s agenda and made alliances with him as well as with Iran. Turkey also enabled ISIS’s passage of stolen oil and has launched an attack on Kurdish allies in Syria. By the same token it is promoting an Islamist agenda and has displayed vicious hostility towards Israel, a key NATO ally. Turkey under Erdogan can only go more radical. Erdogan’s recently acquired superpowers are going to make this happen sooner rather than later. Yet, European countries are warming up to Turkey. The U.S needs to place this issue on the agenda and along with the Europeans to press Turkey to move away from alliances with Russia and Iran.
Secondly, as Celeste Wallander has rightly pointed out, democracy among certain NATO members is deteriorating and this is weakening the alliance. Besides Turkey, whose leader is a de facto authoritarian, there are problems with countries such as Hungary and Poland, two NATO and European Union members. These countries, after having emerged from the darkness of communist rule, are adopting an illiberal democracy based on strong executive powers, weakening of checks and balances and restriction of the press. Hungary is flirting again with its former oppressor, Russia. Indeed, Hungary’s president Victor Orban like his counterpart in the Czech Republic have taken friendly positions towards Putin. The U.S needs to work with its allies to strengthen democratic rule since, as I explained elsewhere, democracy is not just a way of life or a political system but also plays a strategic role in strengthening the Western alliance.
Last, European countries have for decades enjoyed America’s protective military umbrella. NATO has been for the Europeans a great defense against Russia’s aggression. That military alliance has not been reflected in a parallel political alliance. As Robert Kagan pointed out more than a decade ago in his book Of Paradise and Power, Europeans and Americans don’t view foreign policy eye to eye. Europeans have acted as pacifists trying to avoid confrontations and always having a preference for international conventions, international organizations and international law. There is nothing wrong in respecting, these international conventions. However, the problem is that not everyone respects them and organizations such as the United Nations have become useless when it comes to issues such as terrorism and other issues of relevance. Likewise, the Europeans felt comfortable accepting the Iran deal and rushed to Teheran to do business with Iran at a time the Islamic republic was subverting five Middle Eastern countries, supporting terrorism and violating human rights on a great scale. When the U.S tried to bring the issue of human rights violations to the United Nations Security Council after mass protests erupted in Iran last spring, the Europeans ridiculed the American proposal. On the other hand, Europeans were willing to support or at best abstain on anti-Israel resolutions initiated by the Arabs aimed at downgrading internationally a democratic ally like Israel. The latter is a clear sign of capitulation that is unacceptable for those who aspire to defend values of freedom.
Europeans often believe in engagement and appeasement, an attitude they had during the Cold War and to a certain extent continues to this day. Despite the prevalence of terrorism, the European Union still has to recognize all of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and not just its military wing. Hamas is listed as a terrorist organization but Europe continues to fund groups that promote boycotts of Israel and endorsed the infamous “Goldstone Report,” a UN document that unfairly accused Israel of gross human rights violations during its military campaign against Hamas in Gaza. Yet, Europeans are now warming up to Erdogan even as the latter shares nothing with NATO’s interests and less so with anything that resembles a real democracy.
In other words, what America perceives as a threat is not always matched by a similar European view.
These are issues that the U.S should raise. Will the U.S and the Europeans continue to have separate views of who is a friend and who is an enemy or what is right and what is wrong, or what constitutes a threat and what does not?
Or is Europe only concerned with trade issues or the fact that they are feeling threatened by Vladimir Putin’s long arm?
European countries and the U.S have an obligation to defend the free world. NATO cannot be only a military alliance. It has to strengthen democratic rule. NATO also needs to be a political alliance where there must be a consensus with regard to foreign policy. The foreign policy view that needs to prevail is the American one. The European foreign policy is not ready for the tough world we need to deal with. The Trump Administration’s challenge is to push the Europeans in that direction in order to strengthen the much-needed Western alliance.