When Nato celebrated its 50th anniversary at a 1999 summit in Washington, President Bill Clinton sought to assure America’s allies that the end of the cold war would not reduce its commitment to the region. Citing Theodore Roosevelt, he said there was no doubt that the US would continue to play a “great part in the world . . . The only question is whether we will play it well or ill”.

At the time, European leaders could afford to smile at the reference. But as Nato prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary in Washington this week, the ambivalence of Mr Clinton’s remark seems charged. The commemoration of the 29-member bloc has turned into a public test of the tensions tearing at the transatlantic relationship since Donald Trump took office.

For some European politicians, the president’s sometimes scathing views of their continent are not a blip, but a reflection of a gradual withering of Washington’s commitment to the alliance.

epa06881420 Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) with France's President Emmanuel Macron (L), Belgium's Prime Minister Charles Michel and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pose for a family photo in front of the Arcades du Cinquantenaire during a NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium, 11 July 2018. NATO member countries' heads of states and governments gather in Brussels on 11 and 12 July 2018 for a two days meeting. EPA-EFE/IAN LANGSDON
From left: French president Emmanuel Macron, Belgian prime minister Charles Michel, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg at a Nato summit in Brussels last July

“The 70th anniversary should be a reason for celebration and reminding everybody of Nato’s great historic successes, but nobody is doing that,” says Heinrich Brauss, a former assistant secretary-general of the western alliance and now a senior assistant fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations think-tank. “Everybody is concerned about Nato’s current shape, about the future and about the changing transatlantic partnership — and rightly so.”

The big question for the European countries that dominate Nato numerically — if not militarily — is whether what one analyst dubs the “transatlantic distancing” will reverse after Mr Trump leaves office, or widen further. The president has flayed allies over military spending and pan-EU defence projects. He has also pulled the US out of an atomic weapons control treaty with Russia and a nuclear accord with Iran, actions many Europeans see as having a potential direct impact on security. 

Some in Europe already view Mr Trump’s approach to the relationship as part of a lasting change in the way Washington views the world. European leaders see a great power competition amid the growing US preoccupation with China and a belief that the US military should deploy more sparingly and Europe should take on more responsibility, albeit on Washington’s terms.

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The European anxiety about the bond with the US has grown since Mr Trump took office. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and a frequent target of the president, acknowledged last year that transatlantic ties were “under strong pressure”. During a visit to Washington last month Florence Parly, France’s defence minister, said Europeans feared the US commitment to defend them was wavering and warned that other powers including China were trying to split the continent.

“The transatlantic relationship is changing: it’s a transition that started before Trump’s presidency and will continue after,” says Sophia Besch, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform. “His approach that the US gains nothing from alliances is something that is specific to him. But the shift of interest to Asia and a general reluctance to get involved militarily because of the experience of forever wars has shaped the thinking of the next generation of American leaders.”

Spending falls short of Nato guidelines for most members

One sign of the rift between Washington and European capitals since Mr Trump took office is that Nato member country leaders will not be at the 70th birthday celebrations — unlike the 60th anniversary in France and Germany attended by President Barack Obama in 2009. The alliance’s heads of state or government are not due to meet until a December event in London. Some diplomats already view that event with trepidation after Mr Trump criticised European countries over their military spending at a fiery summit in Brussels in July last year.

Mr Trump has also unnerved allies with mixed messages on Nato that have varied from support to outright hostility. On the presidential campaign trail, he branded the organisation “obsolete”. Last year he appeared to question the alliance’s foundational principle of collective defence, saying he would be uncomfortable sending US troops to defend Montenegro because the country was “very aggressive”.

The host for the week’s anniversary meeting will instead be Mike Pompeo, secretary of state — though the shadow of his boss in the White House nearby will loom large.

“The whole thing is really weird,” says Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “They’re not including the president of the US because they’re frightened of him and they’re trying to act like everything is normal, but it’s not. 

Editorial use only. HANDOUT /NO SALES Mandatory Credit: Photo by NATO/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (10183789d) A handout photo made available by the NATO shows the First Session of the North Atlantic Council during the North Atlantic Council Meeting at the level of Foreign Ministers in Washington, DC, USA, 17 September 1949 (issued 01 April 2019). NATO on 04 April 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of its founding. The Washington Treaty, better known as the North Atlantic Treaty, was signed on 04 April 1949 by twelve states and is the basis for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO to mark 70th anniversary, Washington, USA - 01 Apr 2019
Nato's first meeting of foreign ministers in Washington, September 1949

“The elephant in the room — or besides the room — is Trump. Everyone will be monitoring their phones to see if there’s a tweet from across the road.”

Nato and Jens Stoltenberg, its secretary-general who will meet Mr Trump on Tuesday, have grown used to managing the US leader. Mr Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, has praised the president for helping push other alliance members towards a target to spend the equivalent of 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on their militaries. 

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks along with former NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen during a hearing on
Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright told European states in 1999 that her red lines on Nato were 'no diminution, no discrimination and no duplication' © AFP

In a rare moment of bipartisan consensus, Congress has backed Nato, following reports that Mr Trump told aides and officials that he would like to withdraw from the alliance. In January, the House passed a bill by 357 votes to 22 reiterating US support for Nato and preventing federal funds from being used to leave it. Jim Risch, Republican chair of the senate foreign relations committee, says there is “zero appetite” in Congress for leaving Nato.

“Hardly anyone on Capitol Hill agrees with the president, and that’s the silver lining to this cloud,” says Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor and former top state department official.

Yet for many politicians and observers in Europe, the patch-up job by Congress over Nato cannot hide a deeper security schism. 

Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research think-tank, says what is “troubling” is that since Mr Trump arrived, both sides in the transatlantic relationship have started to question old assumptions that they share values and interests. “Nato is doing fine for now,” Mr Tertrais says in a forthcoming paper for the Nato Defense College. “But the Atlantic alliance remains in trouble.”

For some Europeans, the present difficulties mark a belated awakening to strategic realities that have been evident since the end of the cold war. Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs, says the failure to respond sooner was “our big moment of hubris”.

“We felt there was no need,” says Ms Tocci, an adviser on the EU’s global strategy. “It was the end of history, for us as well as the US. We didn’t realise — because we felt there was no need to realise anything.”

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Many of the criticisms of the transatlantic relationship articulated by Mr Trump are not new — even if pretending that they are suits his self-image. US presidents from both parties have long called for Europe to spend more on their militaries — and many Europeans acknowledge the need to do so, given that only six countries other than the US hit the 2 per cent of GDP target last year.

“That’s not [just] Trump,” says Dan Fried, formerly a top official in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W Bush. “That’s been the US position for decades”.

In 2011, Robert Gates, defence secretary in the Obama administration, issued a stern warning in a farewell speech in Brussels to those who “enjoy the benefits of Nato membership . . . but don’t want to share the risks and the costs”. He attacked nations “apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defence budgets”. European military spending had already started to rise before Mr Trump arrived in the White House in January 2017, in part because of US pressure and also due to the shock of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

FILE - In this Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012 file photo, U.S. soldiers, part of the NATO- led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) walk west of Kabul, Afghanistan. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is playing down differences among member countries as the military alliance marks its 70th anniversary in Washington on April 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Hoshang Hashimi, File)
Long engagement: US soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan as part of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force © AP

The US has long been suspicious of EU plans to encourage greater military co-operation. Although the US has called on Europe to spend more on defence, it resents the idea that countries might develop their armed forces outside Nato and become too independent. Months before the alliance’s 50th anniversary in 1999, Madeleine Albright, secretary of state in the Clinton administration, drew her so called “three Ds” — red lines on what Europeans should avoid — “no diminution of Nato, no discrimination and no duplication”.

Once again, Mr Trump’s bluntness — as well as his aggressive lobbying for US business interests — has only made a longstanding Washington argument sharper. Late last year, he castigated France’s President Emmanuel Macron for an “insulting” suggestion that the EU should develop its own army. Gordon Sondland, Washington’s ambassador to the EU, last month warned the bloc that it risked US retaliation if it pressed ahead with plans to limit American companies’ involvement in pan-continental military projects.

Heather Conley, a former senior state department official, says the US is “stuck” in an old ambivalence when it came to European military strength. “We tell [European countries] we want them to spend more, but we want them to buy US equipment,” she adds, noting that more money spent on European defence would inevitably mean “more competition to the US”.

The Director IAI, Nathalie Tocci, during discussion Why Think Tanks Matter on January 30, 2018 in Rome, Italy (Photo by Silvia Lore/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs, says the failure to respond sooner to new strategic realities was Europe's 'big moment of hubris'

Where Mr Trump has gone much further than his predecessors is in his doubts that European security is a prize worth paying for. Patrick Shanahan, acting US defence secretary, was forced last month to play down media reports that the president was demanding Nato allies pay the cost of hosting Washington’s forces, plus a 50 per cent premium. 

“Previous presidents have thought [the US] has benefited from a stable and secure Europe and if that ended up costing us it was worth it, even if we get a bit grumpy that the Europeans aren’t paying enough,” says Philip Gordon, a senior official in the Obama administration. “Trump’s view is that the rich people are screwing us on trade and benefiting from our generosity on defence and that has to stop. He essentially sees Nato as a protection racket.”

The White House is also applying pressure on European countries to take a more assertive line on China. Washington has helped push Beijing up Nato’s agenda: Mr Stoltenberg said in February that China was becoming a more important issue for western allies’ security because of its spending on military and cyber activities and its involvement in regions such as the Arctic and Africa. But European diplomats say the efforts for joint transatlantic action over Beijing are complicated because of European capitals’ resistance to pressure from Washington to ban Huawei, the Chinese technology company, from sensitive work on new 5G mobile communications networks.

Chart showing US arms exports to Nato

The breakdowns in dialogue between the US and European allies since Mr Trump took power have created further difficulties. When the president last year initially signalled US plans to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces missile ban treaty with Russia, he cited violations by Moscow first alleged by the Obama administration and accepted by European countries (though denied by Moscow). 

But the suddenness of the announcement prompted a strong statement from an alarmed EU warning of the risk of a new “arms race”. Washington hurriedly dispatched senior arms control officials to European capitals to offer reassurances, including that it would closely consult with allies on next steps.

More optimistic Europeans point to less publicised efforts that benefit transatlantic co-operation. Washington has expanded its European Deterrence Initiative to fund exercises, partnerships and US force deployments. European projects are under way to develop capabilities ranging from armoured vehicles to missiles; diplomats say countries with larger navies could respond to the US focus on China by offering ships for joint freedom of navigation exercises.

Rather than the sort of rupture that Mr Trump occasionally flirts with, analysts say the bigger risk to the alliance is a slow decay in the face of uncertainty about Washington’s true commitment. “Nato is only as good as your belief that the US president will go to war to defend European countries,” says Mr Gordon, the former Obama administration official. “If you don’t believe that, then Nato doesn’t really exist.”

The current tension is “permanent because it’s structural”, says Claudia Major, a defence analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “Trump is particularly brutal — but many of the ideas we in Europe find problematic have long been there.”

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