Trump was a ‘wake-up call’ for Europe: GLOBSEC founder
US President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric on NATO was a ‘wake-up call’ for Europe to invest more in defence, GLOBSEC founder and president Robert Vass told Harry Lye.
While a Biden presidency will see a strengthening of the relationship between the US and European NATO countries, Europe should maintain its commitment to increasing levels of defence spending and pushing for more strategic autonomy, Robert Vass, founder of the think tank GLOBSEC told us.
He added that in the first years of the Biden presidency, the US would likely have to focus on ongoing domestic issues, meaning that for the West to maintain leadership on the world stage, the US and Europe will have to work together more closely to promote their ideas.
Vass also said that President Biden should take steps to tighten the relationship between the US and the European Union, suggesting that on his first trips to Europe the incoming US President should visit and meet with the European Commission.
Under the Trump administration, Vass said, there had not been a change in NATO norms but rather the language and communication had become more ‘assertive’.
“We can see that as a consequence of that language and the threats that Donald Trump made,” he added. “European allies were able to wake up and actually agree on a very credible plan to increase defence spending across Europe that has been happening, and I think it will continue.”
We need to be very careful because I think that the ball is on the European side.
Despite hopes of a return to ‘transatlantic romanticism’ under a Biden administration, Vass said he was concerned that the ball was now in Europe’s court to maintain its prior commitments to defence, and not rest on laurels of expecting the US to protect Europe.
“We need to be very careful because I think that the ball is on the European side,” he explained. “Whoever is in the US administration, it is clear that we cannot sleep on our laurels. This time, we have to come up with agendas and proposals to the US. If Europe would think that ‘okay, we have a nice US administration’ which would mean that ‘okay, they will not be pushing us to make very hard decisions’, it would be very dangerous for Europe.
“The danger is that we will live in in this kind of romantic feeling of hugs and kisses, but, this time, hugs and kisses are not enough. We need common agendas and actions on so many fronts on a global stage.”
Trump’s harsh rhetoric
During his presidency, Trump often criticised NATO and its European members harshly for not meeting the recommended spend of 2% of their GDP on defence. The outgoing president has also made questionable claims about NATO’s funding structure.
In the past, Trump has called the alliance ‘very unfair to the United States’ and claimed that the US subsidises European commitment to NATO. Trump has also made claims that the US protected Europe at a financial cost to itself.
Trump’s harsh rhetoric on the alliance has, however, led several member states to up their defence budget and take on a more significant share of the alliance’s common fund. Across the alliance, arguments and threats about spending have resulted in European and Canadian allies putting an extra $400bn into defence by 2024.
Trump’s administration to some extent was a wake-up call for Europe and there will not be a coming back to the status quo under Biden.
Vass suggested that while some may see Biden’s victory as a sign Europe should do less, it was an opportunity for the continent to do more when it came to collective defence and the global stage. While the incoming administration may be more friendly towards Europe, and more committed to traditional alliance’s like NATO, this might not be the approach of whoever succeeds Biden.
“Trump’s administration to some extent was a wake-up call for Europe and there will not be a coming back to the status quo under Biden,” Vass said. “I think that the transatlantic relations have changed, and the Europeans will always have in their mind that. Now we have Biden, who we like and a lot of people who understand Europe who supports NATO, but what will happen in four or eight years? Are we sure of what will come later?
“This will mean that what happened during the Trump administration will stay in European heads for a long time. We need more Europe within NATO, we need more European defence, we need to spend more, and there are so many transatlantic gaps that we need to fill in.”
NATO and European strategic autonomy
Despite the economic uncertainty currently facing the continent of Europe due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Vass added that he expected European NATO members would continue a trend of expanding their defence budgets in the coming years.
He went on to say that the Trump presidency also led European nations to have more discussions about the importance of strategic autonomy and to do more by itself. However, he added that Europe’s push for strategic independence should not come at the expense of NATO, which has long been and continues to be the guarantee of security on the continent.
“If we are talking about European strategic autonomy, we have to say this is not at the expense of NATO, or there will not be parallel structures,” Vass added. “And if we are talking about more European defence, it needs to be based on capabilities, not structures; this is very important.
“I think that the last administration was a wake-up call in both good and bad and it will stay with us for a long time. Because it would mean that we cannot depend on the changes in the US government and Europe will need to be able to reassert itself, and it will also be taken more seriously.”
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// Image: Outgoing US President Donald Trump during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Credit: NATO