Trump Will Be His Own Worst Enemy in Brussels | Opinion

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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with President of the European Council Donald Tusk during the Heads of State and of Government G7 summit, on May 26, 2017 in Taormina, Sicily. FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

By most accounts, there’s great trepidation within Europe over this week’s summit meeting between President Trump and the leaders of America’s closest allies. Ostensibly, the 2018 NATO summit—the first formal summit in two years—will focus on a new initiative to promote military readiness, the streamlining of alliance decision-making during crises, and the creation of additional alliance command structures. 

But leaders across Europe know the American president is likely to focus on a single issue in public and private—defense spending. The problem is, history shows that berating U.S. allies to contribute more to the common defense has rarely worked. Moreover, the president has inadvertently undermined the most effective means for achieving the fair burden-sharing that the U.S. government seeks.

Judging by a series of letters recently sent by President Trump to the leaders of several NATO members, the president is likely this week to again berate the assembled heads of state and government for their lack of defense spending. The White House’s focus on fair burden-sharing within NATO is a theme President Trump has been remarkably consistent on since the earliest days of his presidential candidacy—namely, that the United States is getting shafted by every international organization, even those it dominates, and by practically every other country in the world. His most recent pronouncements on this issue make it clear that he continues to view NATO in transactionalzero-sum terms

Aside from the fact America’s political-military alliances are a much better deal than the president acknowledges—not to mention the fact that Europeans spend more than Russia and as much as China, as European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted on Tuesday morning—Trump is right to care about how much money European allies are spending on defense and, just as importantly, what they’re spending it on. But in this regard, the Trump administration is just like every one of its predecessors dating back to the 1950s, each of which has tried to cajole U.S. allies in Europe to spend more.

GettyImages-688667302 U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with President of the European Council Donald Tusk during the Heads of State and of Government G7 summit, on May 26, 2017 in Taormina, Sicily. FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

In some cases, American leaders have emphasized the operational risk created by low European defense spending—former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke in June 2011 about how limited defense budgets had imperiled the alliance’s ability to successfully operate in and over Libya. On other occasions, U.S. leaders have threatened to withdraw American forces from the continent unless Europeans spent more. In other cases, U.S. leaders have relied on broader, systemic arguments, suggesting that low defense spending in Europe threatened to demilitarize Europe, leaving it vulnerable to security threats. Finally, some American leaders have also resorted to values-based arguments that rest on the importance of the North Atlantic security community.

Through the decades of browbeating and cajoling, there appears to be only one instance in which it’s worked—the case of the United Kingdom in 2015. However, it wasn’t simply American hectoring that convinced then-Prime Minister David Cameron to increase defense spending. In fact, Cameron faced a host of domestic political and military circumstances that, when combined with overt U.S. pressure, virtually compelled his hand.

Aside from this instance, browbeating has an incredibly poor success record. Instead, research shows fluctuating threat perceptions on the part of elites and the general public best explain the broad-based (but admittedly uneven) defense spending increases across Europe over the last few years. For example, reputable polling data shows that around 2014-2015, European perceptions of the greatest threats shifted from economic instability and climate change to ISIS. Although public opinion’s role in national security policy formulation is open to debate among scholars, European politicians clearly responded to the changing threat environment, and spending on defense and security has risen ever since 2015.

The most effective way to promote the upward trajectory in defense spending is not through renewed browbeating—it generally hasn’t worked, and there’s absolutely no reason to think it’ll work now. Instead, Washington should focus on two key areas. First, the United States must eliminate intelligence-sharing barriers with European governments and their publics, so that allied leaders are well-informed regarding threats from not just Islamic terrorist organizations in the Levant and North Africa, but also threats from Russia, China, and elsewhere. Second, Washington must more effectively tackle the challenge of misinformation in the public realm, so that citizens across the transatlantic community are better informed of the legitimate security threats confronting Europe.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration may be its own worst enemy in trying to get Europe on the same page when it comes to threat perceptions. Convincing European leaders to view threats through the same lens as Washington requires constructive dialogue and engagement. However, President Trump’s relationship with most of those leaders is rocky at best. Additionally, his dismal approval ratings in Europe make any efforts to meet his spending demands fraught with great political risk for European leaders.

Finally, the president’s conflicted relationship with the U.S. intelligence community may ultimately undermine and potentially weaken the very agencies the United States needs to leverage most in order to build upon positive trends in European defense spending.

Dr. John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College, and the author of NATO and Article 5. The views expressed are his own.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​