Donald Trump has been a persistent critic of Nato and could now present the alliance, which has been the cornerstone of Western security since 1949, with its biggest crisis since the Cold War ended.
Repeatedly during the campaign, he said the US was paying too much into Nato and that its other members 27 members, from Canada to most of its European members and Turkey, were paying too little.
‘Nato is costing us a fortune,’ he said, ‘and yes, we’re protecting Europe, but we’re spending lots of money. Number one, I think the distribution of costs has to be changed.
Donald Trump has been a persistent critic of Nato and says it relies too much on US funding
According to Nato’s own statistics, the US spent an estimated £523billion on defence last year (USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier pictured)
‘We’re spending billions and billions of dollars on Nato,’ he added on another occasion. ‘We’re paying too much! You have countries in Nato that are getting a free ride and it’s unfair, it’s very unfair.’
Trump has a point. According to Nato’s own statistics, the US spent an estimated £523billion on defence last year. That’s more than double the amount all the other 27 Nato countries spent between them, even though their combined GDP tops that of the US. The UK’s 2015 expenditure was £32.5billion.
Nato’s official guidelines state that its members should pay a minimum of 2 per cent of their GDP on defence, yet only four other countries do so. Britain is one of them – although only because the figures have been massaged to include spending on the intelligence services.
The others include Greece, which wants to ward off aggression from its old enemy Turkey, and Estonia and Poland which are understandably terrified of Russia.
Trump is unlikely to pull out of Nato, but he will do his utmost to pressure the Europeans into increasing their spending – he has warned that those who don’t should be kicked out. The trouble is that most EU countries are planning further defence cuts.
And some, especially France and Germany which resent America’s influence, will be considering how to speed up their plans for an EU Army which would compete with Nato and actually weaken European defence.
But spending is only one of Trump’s Nato bugbears. The other is the alliance’s stance against Russia.
Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia, Nato and the US under Obama have taken an increasingly hard line against President Vladimir Putin.
Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia, Nato and the US under Obama have taken an increasingly hard line against President Vladimir Putin
Britain has not had an operational aircraft carrier since HMS Illustrious was decommissioned in 2014. Two new aircrafts are being built, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales
During the campaign, however, Trump made clear he was an admirer of Putin and said there should be more co-operation between their two countries, particularly on fighting terrorism.
He said Nato was ‘obsolete’, partly because its obsession with containing Russia rather meant it wasn’t focussing on today’s real military challenge – terrorism.
Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg may have congratulated the new President yesterday on his election victory – but he also delivered a stern reminder of America’s obligations to its allies, some of which border Russia.
‘Nato’s security guarantee is a treaty commitment,’ said Mr Stoltenberg.
‘All allies have made a solemn commitment to defend each other. This is something absolutely unconditioned.’
This guarantee – known as Article 5 – is at the heart of the Nato Treaty. But would Trump abide by it?
Trump’s great political ally, former Speaker of the US House Newt Gingrich, who may be the next Secretary of State, has said for example that since Estonia is ‘virtually a suburb of St Petersburg’, there is no way in which the US will risk a nuclear war with Russia should President Putin decide to grab it.
Does Gingrich feel the same about Latvia, where there is a sizeable ethnic Russian minority? Or Lithuania? At what point exactly would the US step in to honour Nato’s Article 5?
And might President Trump force Nato to rethink its plan to deploy 4,000 troops – including American soldiers – to the Baltic States and Poland next year?
Could he also reconsider plans by the Obama administration to send a heavy infantry brigade to Eastern Europe early next year?
Perhaps Trump hopes that, given his special relationship with Putin, he will be able to sweet-talk Russia out of its aggressive behaviour – this summer he suggested a President Trump might recognise Russia’s right to Crimea. That approach, I am afraid, simply won’t work.
For now, officials in Eastern Europe are hoping that Trump will prove a hard dealmaker. Estonian defence minister, Hannes Hanso said he hoped that the new administration would see ‘we cannot live and be secure without each other’.
He also agreed with Mr. Trump that European military spending had to rise. ‘We need to pay more for our security in Europe. Estonia is a country that is doing that,’ he said.
Whatever the case, the UK may yet have a pivotal role in shaping the new world order. Trump has little faith in Chancellor Angela Merkel – Europe’s most powerful leader – and there is every chance that, despite Brexit, he may choose Britain to act as a crucial bridge between the US and the EU.
But only if we stump up and meet – or even exceed – our obligations on defence spending.