The “East Asianization” of Europe?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. President Donald Trump. Source: NATO.

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has created unprecedented uncertainty about the U.S. security guarantee towards its allies in Europe. After winning the election in November, Trump repeated statements he made during the campaign that NATO is “obsolete.” At the Munich Security Conference in February, Defense Secretary James Mattis said that unless Europeans fulfilled their commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, the United States would “moderate its commitment” to them – in effect confirming the new conditionality of the security guarantee. Last week Trump seemed to change his mind and said NATO was “no longer” obsolete because it “now” fights terrorism. Nevertheless, the uncertainty about the U.S. security guarantee will remain.

However, this new uncertainty coincides with the deployment of NATO troops and military hardware in the four countries often considered the most vulnerable to a possible Russian attack (“Enhanced Forward Presence”), which was agreed at the Warsaw summit in 2016. In January, a U.S. Armored Brigade consisting of 4,000 troops began to arrive in Poland – itself one of the few NATO countries that spends more than 2 percent of GDP on defense. When I was in Warsaw a few weeks ago I was struck by the feeling of security despite Trump’s statements. “We feel safer than ever,” I was told.

There seems to be a similar feeling of security in Estonia, where the first of 800 British troops and Challenger main battle tanks arrived earlier this month as part of a multinational battle group that will also include French troops (though some in Estonia also worry that the demonstrative presence of NATO troops may unnecessarily provoke Russia). Like Poland, Estonia spends more than 2 percent of GDP on defense.

However, the situation is somewhat different in Latvia and Lithuania, which feel they have got the short straw. The battle group that is deploying to Latvia is led by Canada and will also include troops from Albania, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, and Spain. In Lithuania, Germany is the lead nation, supported by Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Norway. Although both Latvia and Lithuania have moved to quickly increase defense spending since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, they still spent roughly 1.5 percent of GDP on defense each in 2016.

Winston Churchill is famously supposed to have quipped: “All I need for the security of Europe is one American soldier – preferably dead.” It is not entirely clear if this is still true. But the U.S. security guarantee is certainly more credible if American troops are stationed in your country than if troops of other nationalities are. For example, it is harder to imagine that the Trump administration would support the invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – and with it an escalation with Russia – if a German soldier were killed during a Russian incursion in Lithuania than if an American soldier were killed in Poland. Thus Latvia and Lithuania may the new weak link in NATO.

This illustrates the way that, in the context of Trump’s demand that NATO countries spend 2 percent of GDP on defense and the deployment of NATO troops to the Baltic States and Poland, what may be emerging is a system of implicit bilateral security guarantees between NATO countries, centered on the United States. The extent to which any NATO member can rely on the U.S. security guarantee may now depend on how much it spends on defense and on whether it has American troops stationed on its soil. This transformation of collective security into a system of bilateral security guarantees may mean the de facto end of NATO as a collective security organization.

What may be happening is a kind of creeping “East Asianization” of Europe. The term comes from John Ikenberry, who, in his book Liberal Leviathan, described how the United States pursued different liberal hegemonic strategies in Europe and East Asia in the postwar period. In Europe it pursued a “multilateral rules-based approach” centered on collective security within NATO. This was “rule through rules.” In East Asia, meanwhile, it pursued a different approach – “hub and spoke bilateralism” centered on security guarantees with individual countries such as Japan and South Korea. This was “rule through relationships.” (In Latin America and the Middle East, the United States pursued yet another approach that was much more like imperial rule.)

The reasons why the United States pursued these different approaches are complex. But Ikenberry argued that it was partly because the United States wanted more out of Europe and therefore needed to make greater commitments. It had “an elaborate agenda of uniting Europe, creating an institutional bulwark against communism, and supporting centrist democratic governments.” Ikenberry argued that after the end of the Cold War, United States might generalize the bilateral approach took in Asia. In particular, unipolarity might create structural incentives for it to shift towards greater bilateralism.

However, even as the world becomes more multipolar, “East Asianization” may now be happening simply because the Trump administration has little interest in the “elaborate agenda” the United States has had in Europe going back to the end of World War II. (Some within the administration seem to be pursuing almost the opposite agenda.) In addition, Trump seems instinctively to think in terms of bilateral “deals” rather than multilateral structures. It therefore stands to reason that under Trump the United States would take a more “East Asian” approach to Europe. What this suggests is that even if the U.S. security guarantee to European allies might not disappear completely, it might nevertheless be the end of NATO as we know it.