Show sidebar

NATO and European Responses to the Election of Donald Trump

nato

Since the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States, many states, regional bodies and international organizations have followed the diplomatic rituals of response to the election of a U.S. president (even if Trump himself is not following normal protocols). So far, those responses show caution: setting out principled stances, which define the basis upon which they are prepared to work with the president elect. There is also the occasional outburst of glee from some more unsavory regimes (states whose democratic credentials have come under increased scrutiny for anti-democratic practices and suppression of human rights). The caution is a precarious balance of managing diplomatic expectations; wariness, given the range of policy positions taken on national security by Trump and his surrogates; and nervousness about bilateral relationships and trade issues.  In the European context, responses are also framed by an emerging European defense consolidation.  While a common European defense strategy predates Trump’s victory, the emergence of a bellicose and potentially unreliable American partner has hardened attitudes and focused minds on the need for reliable European defense cooperation.

Below is a quick review of a selection of NATO and European country responses. I’ve highlighted reactions that underscore the unacceptability of certain pre-election positions from Trump.  As Der Spiegel reports, the scenario of a Trump presidency was “described in detail in a secret report by the staff of NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg. In it, strategists examine what it would mean if Trump made good on his threat to become less involved in Europe’s security in the future and possibly withdraw a portion of American troops from the Continent.”  The report revealed that even though NATO officials had assumed Hillary Clinton would win, they were still preparing for a range of scenarios behind closed doors. 

As Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador in Washington and head of the influential Munich Security Conference notes in the Der Spiegel report:

As a result of the election of Donald Trump, we are experiencing a moment of extreme and unprecedented uncertainty in the trans-Atlantic relationship.

The caution follows directly from Trump’s evident skepticism about NATO’s military and economic value as articulated during the campaign season, including the sacrosanct mutual defense commitment under Article 5 of the NATO Charter.  Trump consistently reiterated his view that NATO countries could only rely on U.S. support if they “paid their bills.” Meanwhile, Trump’s chilly view toward NATO comes at the same time as a pragmatic defense mind-set is emerging in Brussels and European capitals.  In short, if the U.S. is going to be a less than reliable partner and continues to undermine the credibility and capacity of the NATO alliance, then alternative solutions to Europe’s security will be sought. NATO’s perceived weakness also provides a significant opportunity to bolster Europe’s defense industry. Consolidation in European defense and security could help overcome the fragmentation of 28 navies, 28 air forces and 28 armies notwithstanding that increasing European defense spending has sizable budgetary implications across European and EU member states.

While Trump’s campaign comments managed to stun many in NATO, some are more optimistic about the challenges ahead, relying on long-idealized notions of the depth and substance of the European-U.S. alliance. Czech Army General Petr Pavel told the Associated Press that:

The continuity of the trans-Atlantic relationship, spanning almost 70 years, is simply so binding that no American president would dare be able to change it, and even not willing, because we understand on both sides of the Atlantic that NATO is as important to European allies as it is to North America and we have a treaty that is binding to all of us.

Despite these somewhat optimistic voices, Trump’s election continues to play on European fears of U.S. abandonment on the security front, and a retreat of America to its own splendid isolation. That retreat has obvious historic resonance but a slightly different hue in the 21st century.  Unlike the century past, European NATO member states have other (albeit untested) security options to play with, and with the weakened power of the United Kingdom in its post-Brexit political dithering, the tilt to European security consolidation is significant. Moreover, the prospect of relying on a state whose leader is viewed as having “dangerous authoritarian tendencies” is particularly unattractive given the ever-menacing presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin on Europe’s Eastern front.  The November meeting of EU defense and foreign ministries confirms the ongoing nature of these initiatives and their attraction in the post-Trump victory period.  The emergence of European-centric defense policy is also the natural outcome of Brexit, which works to diminish the British-American axis that served as a counterweight to continental European ambitions for a more robust Euro-centric defense approach.

These efforts and realignments have taken on new urgency after Trump’s unexpected victory.  The US may find that the traffic on unpredictability may not be entirely one-way, nor that Europe will wait patiently for the US’s internal upheaval to steady out.  European and NATO security challenges are immense, looming, and unavoidable (from migration and refugees, to violent extremism, to environmental stress).  If President Trump dithers on the US’s NATO and European commitments, the continent could continue moving toward other options.  These moves may occur in whispers rather than loud bangs but will still have a determined effect on the shape of the global security infrastructure.

Now, moving from NATO responses to country-specific ones: These reflect historic alignments with the US, as well as the emergence of populist politics in Europe in the past decade.  Some leaders have emphasized democratic values, human rights and equality of nations as the motif for ongoing relationships with the US, serving as a quiet warning shot to the incoming administration that principles matter.   For example, Belgium’s President Charles Michel gave deference to the U.S. electoral process but distinctly affirmed the values that underpin the relationship between both countries.

This election was exceptional and the American people have spoken … I wish you every success in the exercise of this high-level office. May you be a unifying President and open to respectful dialogue. I hope that Belgium and the United States will continue to defend their common values, such as freedom and tolerance.

In a similar vein, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent the following message emphasizing long-standing ties and values between the two countries:

On behalf of the Government of Canada, I would like to congratulate Donald J Trump on his election as the next President of the United States. Canada has no closer friend, partner, and ally than the United States…. The relationship between our two countries serves as a model for the world. Our shared values, deep cultural ties, and strong integrated economies will continue to provide the basis for advancing our strong and prosperous partnership.

Similarly, Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic affirmed respect for the US electoral process and the important role that NATO plays for a small country on the hinterland. Croatia’s distinct nervousness has both geographic and historical dimensions, as it is deeply aware of the negative impact Russia’s expansionism has on its stability. Plus, it was not so long ago that Croatia emerged from a war-torn region, whose viability is highly dependent on European integration and stability. As Plenkovic said:

I congratulate Trump on his victory, we respect the will expressed by US voters and I am sure that we will foster good relations with the new Administration … Croatia and the USA are allies in NATO. We will continue advocating firm Trans-Atlantic relations. This is important for Croatia, this is important for our foreign policy priorities and for the southeast of Europe. NATO’s role has always been crucial for the architecture of peace in Europe.

The Czech Republic President Milos Zeman, who endorsed Trump’s candidacy in September, declared that he was “very happy” with Trump’s election victory. His own government’s policy on migration has drawn criticism from European counterparts for supporting racist and anti-immigrant views. Zeman told reporters in a rare press briefing at the Prague Castle:

I would like to cordially congratulate Donald Trump. I had, as one of few European politicians, declared public support for this candidate… because I agree with his opinions on migration as well as the fight against Islamic terrorism.

Displaying parallel delight, Hungary’s right-wing President János Áder was very enthusiastic in his response to Trump’s victory.  Prime Minster Viktor Orbán also noted that it was a “historic event, in which Western civilization appears to successfully break free from the confines of an ideology.” He posted on Facebook:

Congratulations. What a great news. Democracy is still alive.

After speaking to Trump on the phone last week, Orbán reportedly said, “Donald Trump has made it clear that he regards Hungary highly.” He told the business daily Vilaggazdasag that Trump had invited him to Washington.

However, Estonia’s Prime Minister  Taavi Roivas, Latvia’s  President Diamonds Rejoins, and Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite have indicated their collective anxiety in the wake of Trump’s win. All three Baltic NATO members are concerned that Russia, given its prior history of interference and occupation, might act coercively or continue its ongoing interference in their domestic affairs. It is these smaller countries,whose geopolitical location makes them particularly vulnerable to direct and indirect Russian interference, that have much to fear in the tumult that follows the U.S. election results.  Notably, all three countries depend on NATO to defend their airspace, and both ground troops and greater naval presence have been sought to shore up their perceived vulnerability in the wake of Russian expansionism in the region.  Notably, Estonia is one of the few NATO countries that meet their GDP defense spending goals, an indicator of the value that collective defense holds for the state. “I really hope that the rhetoric on defence and Russia was mostly a part of the election campaign,” Saulius Skvernelis, Lithuania’s incoming prime minister, told Reuters.

President Vejonis (Latvia):

“The United States of America’s voters have made their choice. I congratulate the newly elected US President Donald Trump on his victory in the elections… We will continue to work together, ensuring both collective defense and the fight against terrorism, as well as other modern security challenges.”

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda congratulated Trump, but reminded the U.S. president-elect of the two countries’ important “strategic relationship” that includes a pledge to send soldiers to the NATO’s eastern border. These Eastern European countries’ fears and insecurities are heightened by the diplomatic love-fest the president-elect has encouraged with their Russian neighbor throughout the campaign season and since his election.

Joining them is France’s President Francois Hollande, who has expressed considerable concern at the U.S. election results.  Hollande said Trump’s win “opens up a period of uncertainty” that “must be faced with lucidity and clarity.” He congratulated Trump but noted:

Certain positions taken by Donald Trump during the American campaign must be confronted with the values and interests we share with the United States.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, current President Joachim Gauck, predicted replacement Frank-Walter Steinmeier all responded fulsomely to the election results. Chancellor Merkel offered a compelling and highly telling response to Mr. Trump’s election.  She affirmed the core values that underpin Germany’s foreign policy and her conditional support for working with the US.  She asserted that the “partnership with the USA remains a basic pillar of German foreign policy” to meet today’s multiple challenges including “economic and social wellbeing and a forward-looking climate policy.”

There’s no country outside the European Union we Germans have as close a relationship with as the United States of America. Whoever rules this vast country, with its enormous economic strength, its military potential, its cultural influence, carries a responsibility which is felt all over the world.

Americans have decided that the person to carry this responsibility for the next four years is Donald Trump. Germany and America are connected by common values: democracy, freedom, respect for the law and for human dignity irrespective of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political conviction. On the basis of these values, I offer the future president of America, Donald Trump, a close working relationship.

The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said:

I believe the biggest challenge will be to meet the high expectations that Trump himself has created: to make America great again, also with a view to the economy, to create new jobs in the current economic environment, all that won’t be easy. Above all I hope that we aren’t facing bigger tectonic shifts in international politics.

President-elect Steinmeier was stoic in his position (a reflection perhaps of earlier comments this past summer when he opined that Trump was a “hate preacher,” and further saying the Republican candidate and anti-immigration parties in Europe “make politics with fear.”)

During his campaign Donald Trump has spoken critically not just about Europe, but particularly about Germany. I think we have to prepare for the fact that American foreign policy will be less predictable for us in the future. We have to be prepared for the fact […] that America will be more inclined to make unilateral decisions in the future.

Paradoxically, given Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric concerning Muslims and Muslim-majority countries, Turkey’s embattled President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was enthusiastic in his welcome of Trump.  Perhaps opportunistically, given the broader pressure his government faces for serious human rights violations against perceived adversaries and critics, Erdogan said he was pleased that the election “marks the beginning of a new era in the United States” adding:

I hope that the American people’s decision will facilitate audacious steps being taken regarding fundamental rights and liberties and democracy in the world and regional developments. Personally and on behalf of the nation, I wish to consider this decision by the American people a positive sign and wish them a successful future.

The United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May said forcefully:

We are, and will remain, strong and close partners on trade, security and defence. I look forward to working with president-elect Donald Trump, building on these ties to ensure the security and prosperity of our nations in the years ahead.

The British response comes in the context of the United Kingdom’s continued isolation from Europe in the wake of Brexit. The UK is under significant pressure to shore up its diplomatic, security and trade alliances as it faces the uncertainty of life outside the European Union. For better or worse, despite deep concern in Whitehall at the inflammatory rhetoric and ill-considered viewpoints being articulated by Trump, the United Kingdom is sticking close (for now) to its traditional ally.

This roundup reveals the range of feelings in Europe: from nervousness to uncertainty in this post-election moment.  Uncertainty seems to rule as the incoming administration tinkers rhetorically with many of the key tenets of the transatlantic security partnership, which has been the bedrock of state solidarity and military engagement for over half a century.  Tea-leaf reading on the significance (or taming) of rhetorical extremity from various Trump national security appointments offers little by way of fundamental reassurance on the global direction of the United States.  But equally, and with far less attention, continental European states are not waiting around for the answer. EU member states are actively exploring their own collective capacity for security augmentation and security self-reliance. And while Trump’s rhetoric may have been about encouraging states to ‘go it alone,’ less connection, less influence and less integration in the security regimes of western democracies may not ultimately serve the US and its own security interests well.  The moral of that story may well involve being careful what you wish for (rhetorically or otherwise).

Image: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks on transatlantic relations and European defense in Brussels — NATO


About the Author

is concurrently the Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School and Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).