Commentary – New Deal for NATO?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Europeans should take seriously Trump’s proposal for a greater financial contribution to NATO. This is the only way to prevent a catastrophe.

Only two years ago, my wife and I spent a year at research institutes in Berlin, and shared some happy moments buying holiday gifts at the Christmas market near the Memorial Church at the heart of the city. So the recent tragedy had special meaning for us. But as a long-time friend of Germany, I urge you not to allow it to divert your attention from more serious dangers.

These threats will be emerging from Washington, not Mosul. But I will be arguing that Trump’s adventurist foreign policy need not do grievous damage to long-standing trans-Atlantic commitments to democracy. This will only happen if European leaders remain on the sidelines, and allow the new President to dominate the diplomatic stage. If Continental governments rise to the occasion and exercise creative leadership, they will be in a position to shape Trump’s diplomacy in ways that will strengthen, not weaken, the protection of fundamental rights. 

To grasp the dangers on the horizon, begin with a nightmare scenario that was unthinkable a year ago. Shortly after Trump’s Inauguration, suppose that he announces a wide-ranging alliance with Vladimir Putin. Its principal aim is to eradicate Islamic extremism, but it also involves de-escalation of rising military tensions in Eastern Europe. 

But in a year or two, Putin repudiates his broader commitment to détente. He seizes the opportunity to engineer a Ukrainian-style takeover of the Baltic states – with local Russian minorities in Estonia or Latvia engaging in “spontaneous” uprisings backed by poorly disguised Russian ground troops streaming across the border. Trump then confronts a moment of truth: Should he support decisive military intervention by NATO or allow Putin to proceed?   

Here is where a second presidential initiative will play a key role. During his campaign, Trump repeatedly insisted that Europeans must stop “free-riding” on America and pay a much bigger share of the NATO budget. Once he becomes President, his diplomatic team renews this demand in a series of melodramatic meetings with their European counterparts – who reject big increases, on the ground that they will divert precious funds from other grave fiscal crises afflicting the EU. Given Trump’s temperament, I can readily imagine him telling the “selfish Europeans to go to hell,” permitting Putin to proceed with the piece-meal incorporation of the Baltic states. 

The time to preempt this nightmare scenario is now. Europe’s leadership should signal its willingness to bargain in good faith on a new cost-sharing agreement. Such an overture would offer the new President a serious alternative to a deal with Putin. Despite its financial costs, a New Deal for NATO also promises Europe large advantages.        

It is in Germany’s national interest to keep the Eastern frontier as far to the east as possible. If NATO disintegrates, the Federal Republic will be forced to increase its military investments dramatically in response to Putin’s advances in Eastern Europe. The vast sums required far exceed the substantial increases that Trump might find acceptable.

At the same time, Trump’s recommitment of American ground forces to NATO will dramatically reduce the chances of Russian aggression. Putin presides over a declining population of 140 million, whose prosperity is heavily dependent on oil prices. His military looks formidable only if Trump collaborates with Russia. But once the United States recommits to NATO, only a foolish adventurer would mount a Ukrainian-style takeover of the Baltic – and Putin is no fool.

Nevertheless, Chancellor Merkel will have a tough time sustaining political support for a sensible deal with Trump. Many of her potential coalition partners may oppose a big increase in NATO spending — fearing that it will propel the country down the militaristic path that led to Nazi catastrophe. I take these fears seriously. But they are misguided. A New Deal for NATO does not envision the creation of a mighty German army defending the homeland against foreign danger. It proposes the very opposite: German troops will be integrated into a coordinated European force guarding the Eastern frontier together with trans-Atlantic allies.

The skeptics also ignore the greater danger that NATO will disintegrate in a few years, requiring a massive military build-up. Germany would then have little choice but to organize a powerful German army led by a German high-command – just the nightmare conjured up by critics of the Chancellor’s effort to begin cost-sharing negotiations as soon as possible. 

Suppose Merkel succeeds in convincing Trump to make NATO his first priority. The American President will soon find himself under intense political pressure to give new meaning to Article Two of the Treaty which commits members to “strengthen their free institutions.” After all, Eastern Europe is 8000 kilometers away from the Eastern United States. Since Trump has pledged to put America First, his fellow America Firsters will be raising an old question: Why should the country’s soldiers die for Danzig, especially if Poland is lurching toward authoritarianism?

There is only one way for Trump to respond if he hopes to sustain broad domestic support. He will call Kaczynski (and Orban and Erdogan) to the bargaining table and demand that they take concrete actions to comply with their treaty pledge to “strengthen their free institutions.” If they refuse, he will insist that their countries be excluded from the alliance. 

The prospect of NATO exclusion is the most effective sanction available to the major powers of Europe. This means that a timely diplomatic initiative by Chancellor Merkel will not only prevent the disintegration of NATO and the catastrophic remilitarization of Germany. It will also serve to sustain real-world democracy at this dark moment in European history. It would be tragic if the catastrophe at the Memorial Church leads Germany to pass up on this historic opportunity.


Bruce Ackerman is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale and a Council Member of the European Studies Council at the MacMillan Center.

With permission of the SudDeutsche Zeitung, Professor Ackerman prepared this English translation of the article recently published in it. It summarizes a more elaborate argument he presented last month as the keynote address at the semi-annual meeting of the Venice Commission. See http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/documents/?pdf=CDL-PI(2016)014-e . (German version: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/aussenansicht-der-neue-nato-deal-1.3325480A)