North Atlantic Treaty Organization defenders on both sides of the Atlantic repeatedly express harsh criticism of President Donald Trump for supposedly undermining the transatlantic alliance. For instance, they were especially upset with him for his conduct before and at the July NATO summit in Brussels. Critics charge that the president is relinquishing America’s leadership, especially in Europe, and wishes to abandon NATO.
Yet the president’s harsh words for the allies at Brussels consisted of little more than a more insistent demand for greater burden-sharing within NATO—a complaint that other U.S. administrations have expressed over the decades. Nothing in Trump’s comments at Brussels indicated that the United States sought to end its dominance of NATO or its longtime hegemonic position in Europe. Indeed, Washington’s policy on that score has remained consistent throughout the nearly seven decades of NATO’s existence.
In fact, repeated U.S. attempts to sabotage independent European security initiatives confirm the goal of preserving hegemony and using NATO as the mechanism for doing so. The Trump administration should adopt a far different attitude, but it is far too soon to determine if the president will contemplate making such a change.
Washington’s traditional, smothering stance and its unfortunate effects became apparent during a revealing episode in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Key European Union members proposed the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP). The ESDP grew out of the earlier European Security and Defense Initiative (ESDI), which Washington found little cause to oppose. The ESDI was a classic burden-sharing scheme, in which the Europeans promised to do more by creating a stronger “European pillar” within NATO. But the latter point was the crucial caveat; an increased European security role would occur only within the careful confines of NATO.
Professor Christopher Layne, author of the seminal book, The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present, concludes that ESDP was instead “envisioned as the backbone of an independent European security policy, one developed by Europeans without U.S. input.” If that was not enough to unsettle U.S. leaders, Layne notes, at their November 2000 meeting, the European Union’s defense ministers “gave ESDP concrete expression by announcing plans to create a sixty-thousand strong Rapid Reaction Force (RRF).”
Even before those moves, U.S. leaders were uneasy about how the Europeans seem to regard the ostensibly tame ESDI. The Clinton administration’s policy demands reflected an insistence on maintaining NATO’s preeminence—and, therefore, Washington’s domination of Europe’s security architecture. The administration’s approach insisted on the so-called “three Ds” that ESDI or any new security initiative must reflect. As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright emphasized in a December 1998 speech to the North Atlantic Council: “Any initiative must avoid preempting Alliance decisionmaking by de-linking ESDI from NATO, avoid duplicating existing efforts, and avoid discriminating against non-EU members.” The administration soon concluded that the evolving ESDP violated all of those conditions.
The ESDP and RRF plans triggered a pronounced disagreement between the United States and the EU about how far the “Europeanization” of the Continent’s defense could or should go. Tensions escalated in late 2000 when French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin emphasized that although the RRF would draw on some European military units also assigned to NATO, it would be an autonomous European force. They indicated further that it would be the embryo of an EU army with a chain of command, headquarters, and staff entirely separate from NATO.
Layne notes that the U.S. reaction to the RRF was “swift and hostile.” It was an attitude shared throughout the bipartisan foreign policy establishment. John Bolton, who would become a senior policy official in George W. Bush’s administration, and later, national security advisor in the Trump administration, excoriated the RRF as “a dagger pointed at NATO’s heart.”
There was also an element of panic within the Clinton administration and the wider U.S. foreign policy community. Speaking to the NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels in December 2000, Secretary of Defense William Cohen warned that if the EU created a defense capability outside of NATO, the Alliance would become “a relic of the past.” Officials in the subsequent Bush administration exhibited a similar attitude. In October 2003, Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, sharply criticized the EU’s plan to develop an independent military capacity. Burns branded that effort as “one of the greatest dangers to the transatlantic community.”
Washington’s countermove to the ESDP and the RRF was to propose creating a military response force within NATO. Washington lobbied intensely for that option, especially among Poland and other new members of the alliance. Eventually, France and other powers who had favored a European-controlled rapid reaction capability gave way, and the NATO version went into operation in 2003. That capability—and NATO’s control over it—has taken on new relevance as tensions have mounted between the alliance and Russia.
Key U.S. officials and their allies in the broader American foreign policy community also show no increased receptivity toward the efforts of France and Germany to revive the European Union’s security ambitions. Bolton certainly has not altered his hostility to independent European security efforts over the years. He even repeated the “dagger aimed at NATO’s heart” phrase in a September 17, 2016, op-ed in the Boston Globe—when he was blatantly angling for a high-level policy post if Trump won the upcoming election. “We can count on enthusiastic support from Britain and much of “new Europe” for reforming and strengthening the alliance,” Bolton wrote, “but when European governments place renewed emphasis on a purely European solution, we are seeing a dagger pointed at NATO’s heart.” He added: “If the EU, rather than its individual NATO member countries, really did develop a robust military capability, it would inevitably challenge the alliance’s foundational concept.” Since Bolton now sits just a few doors down from the Oval Office, it is safe to assume that he is peddling that same hostility regarding independent European security initiatives to President Trump.
It appears that Washington’s habitual insistence on NATO—and, therefore, American—primacy is being tested again. Proposals for a European Union military are becoming more frequent and vocal. French President Emmanuel Macron revived the idea for an independent European Union army in the fall of 2017. In a speech to French ambassadors in late August 2018, Macron developed his case further, arguing that Europe needed to take more responsibility for its defense. Moreover, during a subsequent speech to a European Union gathering, Macron called for a “nearly automatic” mutual security guarantee within the EU in light of what he saw as Washington’s wavering commitment to international (including European) security. Although he denied that such a scheme intended to undermine or supersede NATO, it was clear that he sought a vigorous European military capability to operate outside of NATO. Macron contended that Europe had relied far too long on the United States for protection. “Our aim is clearly for Europe to achieve strategic autonomy and reinforce defense solidarity,” he stated bluntly.
Although France again takes the lead in proposing a substantially more independent European security policy and capability, Paris is hardly alone. In June 2018—before the tense confrontation with Trump at the Brussels summit—nine EU nations endorsed the French plan to establish a “Defense Intervention Group” to facilitate an independent military response to threats or disorder inside or outside EU territory. That measure also sought to promote continued defense cooperation between EU nations and Great Britain following that country’s expected implementation of Brexit. Crucially, Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed Germany’s support for Macron’s plan to establish such a European intervention force.
Predictably, the reaction to signs of renewed European interest in independent security schemes among both conservative hawks and the staunchly Atlanticist foreign policy establishment in the United States has been decidedly chilly. Most critical comments blame Trump for undermining European confidence in the U.S. security commitment and thereby creating support for security mechanisms outside of NATO. However, it may be significant that the Trump administration’s official reaction has been low-key and has exhibited none of the strident opposition to similar moves that previous administrations expressed. Such a mild stance suggests that the influence of Bolton and other advocates of the transatlantic status quo are not yet dominant.
As noted, though, Trump’s demands for greater European seriousness about collective defense emphasize financial burden-sharing and a willingness to do more to support NATO’s U.S.-led efforts. There are few, if any, indications yet that U.S. leaders intend to share decision-making authority within NATO, much less gracefully accept the creation of new European security arrangements that exclude the United States.