News analysis

Europe still uneasy about Trump ahead of meeting

Nato members in Munich seek predictability, reliability from US

A top-heavy American delegation, led by United States Vice-President Mike Pence and Defence Secretary James Mattis, arrives in the German city of Munich today for the biggest annual get-together of European security and defence chiefs.

Their mission is seemingly straightforward: to reassure the Europeans that, despite disparaging remarks from President Donald Trump, US commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) alliance remains unshaken. "Nato is the fundamental bedrock" of transatlantic cooperation and America's "second home", Mr Mattis told his European counterparts on the eve of the Munich gathering.

But European governments continue to be rattled by persistent demands from the new US administration for greater European defence contributions, as well as the apparent determination of the new White House occupant to upend most of the principles underpinning international stability. The report prepared by German officials for the Munich conference is bleakly entitled "Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order".

The resignation of US National Security Adviser Michael Flynn - after revelations that he had entertained improper contacts with the Russian ambassador in Washington and misled his White House superiors - may be embarrassing for Mr Trump, but it could actually provide a boost to the US delegation in Munich.

The departure of Mr Flynn, with his dubious personal contacts with Russian President Vladimir Putin and - as seen from Europe - his equally dubious belief in a new US-Russia "strategic partnership", will reassure the rest of the Nato member-states that no unexpected Russian initiatives are in the offing.

Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (front row, second from left) speaking with US Defence Secretary James Mattis during a photo session with other Nato defence ministers at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday. Mr Mattis has the
Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (front row, second from left) speaking with US Defence Secretary James Mattis during a photo session with other Nato defence ministers at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday. Mr Mattis has the hard task of explaining how the Trump administration intends to maintain the credibility of its security guarantees to Europe. PHOTO: REUTERS

Still, the Europeans remain nervous about the Trump administration's future Russia policy. "There is no such thing as business as usual with Russia," said Dutch Defence Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, who spoke for many in the alliance, this week.

But while some European governments worry about the US being too soft on Russia, others fear a new US-Russian confrontation over arms control agreements, after unnamed Washington officials claimed that Russia has deployed new cruise missiles banned under a 1987 treaty.

The allegations are not new; they were also made by the Obama administration.

Nevertheless, the Europeans fear that their reiteration now could unleash a broader political tussle between Mr Trump and Congress in Washington, and that this in itself could derail the forging of a new Nato consensus on dealing with Russia.

Nor are the Europeans impressed with American demands to spend more on their defence.

Most governments accept that they should increase their military budgets to the 2 per cent of gross domestic product threshold fixed by the alliance. At the moment, only five out of Nato's 28 member-states - Britain, Estonia, Greece, Poland and the US itself - meet this criterion.

But while European defence spending is on the rise, it may take years before other countries hit the target: Germany, Europe's biggest economy, will have to double its defence spending - clearly not a viable proposition in an electoral year. Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is trying to calm tempers. "This is not the US telling Europe to increase defence spending," he claimed this week, but "about implementing something which we all agreed to do together".

However, many European governments are unlikely to spend more on their military if this is perceived to be simply a result of US bullying, especially when the demand for extra spending comes from a US administration which remains incoherent in its own strategic priorities.

So, if Mr Mattis, who himself served as a Nato military commander, is to stand any chance of boosting the Europeans' financial contributions, he will have to go beyond the banging of conference tables, by explaining how the new administration intends to maintain the credibility of its security guarantees to Europe.

Predictability and reliability are what the Munich security gathering's 400 or so participants will want most from the US.

But the US delegation won't find it easy to provide either, partly because Mr Trump's words and actions have already stirred one of the biggest anti-American movements in Europe in decades, and partly because the new US administration has yet to find its coherence and poise.

It is still not obvious, for instance, how powerful Mr Mattis will be within the newly revamped US National Security Council, in which the intelligence services are not permanently represented.

Nor is it clear what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has yet to hold a press conference, really thinks of America's commitment to European security.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2017, with the headline 'Europe still uneasy about Trump ahead of meeting'. Print Edition | Subscribe