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Why Europe is so confused by the Trump administration on NATO

A top military officer’s reassurances on the alliance will be viewed with skepticism by allies.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford’s reassurances on NATO are unlikely to be persuasive to allies.
AP Images

During a panel at the Brookings Institution on Thursday morning, Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, strongly assured his audience that the US remains committed to NATO.

The problem is that the Trump administration keeps suggesting otherwise — and many allies aren’t sure what to believe.

During his remarks, Dunford said other NATO members needed to spend more on their militaries, but stressed that there was no ambiguity about Washington’s devotion to the alliance. And he reaffirmed that the US is bound by the duty enshrined in Article 5 of the NATO charter — that an attack against one member is an attack against them all.

"I don't think there is any question about our commitment to NATO," Dunford said in a soothing tone.

But his words are unlikely to bring much comfort to Washington’s allies in Europe. They have questions — many of them. President Donald Trump and his team have been offering conflicting signals on NATO for months, and it’s becoming exceedingly difficult to parse the exact meaning of the administration’s rhetoric.

While the US has long chided fellow NATO members for failing to spend the required 2 percent of GDP on defense — most fall below it — Washington is for the first time threatening to act on its complaint by cutting US support for the alliance or possibly even withdrawing altogether.

On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence said in Brussels that the Trump administration’s support for NATO is “unwavering.”

But alongside the carrot, Pence offered a stick: "The president expects real progress by the end of 2017,” he said. “The patience of the American people will not endure forever.” It’s unclear what an exhaustion of patience would actually mean for the US’s commitment to NATO.

Last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis offered a vague blend of encouragement and warning to NATO allies during his debut trip to Brussels. He affirmed US backing of NATO, which he characterized as a “fundamental bedrock for the US and all the transatlantic community.”

But he also made it clear that the bond wouldn't necessarily last forever.

"America will meet its responsibilities, but if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense," he said.

Diplomats and analysts were left scratching their heads, wondering what Mattis actually meant. What would “moderate” mean? When exactly would that happen? And how can the US’s commitment be so strong and so precarious at the same time?

Trump is at the heart of the uncertainty surrounding the future of NATO. On his path to the White House, he repeatedly slammed NATO as “obsolete” and criticized allies for not pulling their weight on defense spending. Then he reversed his position on NATO, based on the either misguided or deliberately false claim that NATO had “changed their policy” due to his criticism. Later on, he expressed ambivalence about it. Then right before taking office, he decided that the alliance was, in fact, obsolete. Now in office, his team is trying to thread the needle by saying the US loves NATO but its love is conditional.

There are other factors contributing to allies’ concerns about Trump’s commitment to NATO as well. Diplomats the world over know that Trump likes to conduct diplomacy using Twitter without consulting experts or the rest of his administration; official statements from his press secretary or Cabinet members can easily be unraveled by a furious tweet in response to the latest report Trump watched on Fox News.

That impulsive unpredictability cuts both ways — it might make Europe more anxious to try to appease him, and make leaders try to rally their countries to spend more on defense just in case Trump really means what he says. But it may also make it harder for leaders to convince their countries that his words are more than thoughtless stream of consciousness, forgotten shortly after they’re uttered.

Then there is Trump’s sustained interest in warming ties with Russia. From effusive praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin to business ties with Russian investors to his personal lawyer’s recent meeting with pro-Russian advocates seeking a path to lift sanctions on Russia, Trump’s fondness for Russia has NATO allies on edge.

The military alliance was originally formed after World War II to deter Soviet aggression, and today one of its functions is to discourage Russian expansionism in Europe. But Trump’s bid to win over the Kremlin could lead him to be less concerned about that priority. European nations don’t know how seriously Trump takes their security.

The only thing that’s clear right now is that the US is losing the trust of its friends.