Deeply alarmed at President Trump’s attacks on NATO and the transatlantic relationship, European governments are rethinking their reliance on the United States as a strategic ally against Russia, but they are unlikely to make regional security arrangements independent of Washington.
Trump has forced the reassessment in recent days by calling the European Union a “foe,” expressing reservations about defending other NATO members, and blasting Germany and other allies — comments he said were aimed at strengthening the U.S.-European alliance but that raised concerns across the continent.
"We can no longer fully rely on the White House,” Heiko Maas, Germany's foreign minister, said Monday, a position echoed by other senior European officials and diplomats. "The first clear consequence can only be that we need to align ourselves even more closely in Europe."
But European allies bewildered by Trump’s seeming hostility for NATO must confront a sobering reality: They have few good alternatives for protecting themselves against Russia or other potential adversaries.
“I think they have finally come to the conclusion that they have a president of the United States that they cannot count on,” said James Goldgeier, an American University professor and visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But what can they really do? Europe has not developed the kind of capacity it would need to have a more independent defense capability.”
The dominant U.S. role in NATO was by design when the alliance was created in 1949 — to keep Washington engaged in defending Europe, where it had fought two major wars, to deter Russia by vowing to defend Europe with nuclear weapons if necessary, and to prevent Germany from reemerging as a military threat.
Intentionally or not, experts say, Trump is undermining that design. But his actions are not as severe as his rhetoric.
Trump signed an agreement at the July 12 NATO summit in Brussels, for example, that again condemned Russia’s seizure of Crimea and reiterated the alliance’s bedrock mutual defense provision, which says an "attack against one Ally will be regarded as an attack against us all."
And despite widespread concerns in NATO that Trump would start to remove American troops, he has continued to send regular rotations of U.S. troops to Central Europe, where NATO is reinforcing its defenses.
Trump’s attacks have been “damaging but so far it may not be long-lasting damage,” said Alexander Vershbow, who was NATO’s deputy secretary-general from 2012 to 2016 and is a former U.S. ambassador to Russia.
Trump this week deepened European anxieties when he complained on Fox News that the newest member of the alliance, tiny Montenegro, could “get aggressive and congratulations, you’re in World War III.” Trump had personally signed off on Montenegro joining the alliance last year.
Latvia’s foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, fired back that the former Soviet states such as his are the most at risk of Russian aggression.
“For the record: Latvia joined #NATO not because we are aggressive but because we feared aggression based on our own historic experience and we share common Western values like democracy, rule of law and human rights, no intent to start World War III,” he tweeted.
Trump’s scenario under which the U.S. could be dragged involuntarily into a European war with Russia is far-fetched, not least because Montenegro is smaller than Connecticut and has fewer people than Washington, D.C.
Article 5 of the NATO treaty obligates member states to come to the defense of other members if they are attacked but allows each one to take “such action as it deems necessary.” The mutual defense provision has only been invoked once — when NATO joined the United States in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But Trump’s questioning of whether he would honor Article 5 and assist member states has unnerved the alliance, fracturing its cohesion and its confidence, especially because Trump continues to offer fulsome praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin during and after their summit in Helsinki.
“No European officials I’ve talked to believes that Donald Trump would enforce Article 5,” said Derek Chollet, a former Pentagon and State Department official now with the German Marshall Fund, a think tank that studies transatlantic relations. “The lack of trust is total, but they can’t say it out loud.”
To admit openly that the U.S. might not meet its NATO commitments could invite Putin to probe the alliance’s resolve by invading or seeking to destabilize NATO members on Russia’s western border, analysts said.
“Putin has got to be thinking, ‘Do I test this alliance, because if I just test it a little bit maybe the whole thing breaks.’” Goldgeier said.
Moscow also may seek to test how Trump will respond if it steps up its destabilization of Ukraine, which is not in NATO, Vershbow said. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has sent troops and supplies to aid separatists forces fighting in eastern Ukraine, killing over 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers and displacing over 1.6 million Ukrainians.
If Trump were to balk at continuing NATO’s effort to deter Moscow in Central Europe, the damage to the alliance could be substantial, experts say.
“Trump seems to be saying not only that Europe has got to defend itself, but that European nationalism is a good thing, which is exactly what NATO and the European Union were set up to avoid,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland who also served as assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs from 2005 to 2009.
The European Union has talked for decades of developing a military force independent of NATO but it has never gotten far. Some officials have discussed creating a European-only nuclear weapons capability, building on France’s small stockpile of warheads outside NATO control, but that idea has never progressed.
Trump’s questioning of NATO “may give some impetus” to the European Union to build up a military capability outside of NATO, Vershbow said. “But they’re not ready to jump ship because there’s no ship to jump to.”
The combined defense budgets of the 28 NATO members other than the U.S. is around $312 billion in 2018. That’s less than half the Pentagon budget but far exceeds the $51 billion that Russia said it is spending.
But other than the United States, Britain and France, most NATO members lack equipment and manpower to fight a sustained conventional war without the U.S. at their side.
It would take a decade or longer for the European Union to develop armed forces that could rival the U.S. military, assuming there was political will to create a standing European army. For now, there isn’t.
Germany and other NATO members resent Trump’s public scolding for their failure to meet the alliance’s target of 2% percent of GDP on defense, Vershbow said, but some alliance members privately admit that redoubling their effort to comply with his demands is their only viable option.