President Trump’s apparent aversions towards international organizations like NATO and the European Union have led to concerns in Europe and the U.S. about the future of transatlantic relations and European security. Expectations were therefore high that the annual Munich Security Conference would bring some clarity of the new U.S. administration’s policies towards Europe. To discuss the key issues that were debated during the conference, the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America organized an informal roundtable discussion with policy experts from Washington, DC and Brussels. Panelists included Dr. Niklas Helwig (SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations), Prof. Dr. Susan Penksa (Westmont College), Mr. Jeffrey Lightfoot (Atlantic Council), and Prof. Dr. Joachim Koops (Vesalius College and Global Governance Institute).
After Donald Trump’s previous critical remarks on NATO and the EU, European observers were eager to hear from Vice-President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Munich Security Conference. Although both reassured European partners of the U.S.’ commitment to NATO, many observers wondered if this position was coordinated with President Trump, who has the final authority over U.S. foreign policy. Many observers were not surprised by the promise by European NATO members to increase their budgets to reach the agreed target of spending 2% of the gross domestic product on defense. Nevertheless, it would be misleading to assert that these developments are solely linked to pressure from the new administration. As one panelist pointed out, several European countries had already decided to increase their defense budget before Donald Trump was elected to office. The real turning point was the intervention in Libya in 2011, which had exposed the lack of European military capabilities. Since then, in an effort to achieve “strategic autonomy”, many European states have increasingly looked to the EU rather than NATO to address European security issues. But the EU’s efforts in the framework of its Common Foreign and Security Policy are not in competition to NATO activities. As another panelist argued, interaction and cooperation between NATO and EU officials is much closer today than it was some years ago.
Several roundtable participants cast doubt on whether or not all European NATO members will be able and willing to meet the 2% defense spending target. The new German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel already undermined the position of Chancellor Angela Merkel and his German coalition partners by raising concerns about a rapid defense boost, arguing that German spending on the integration of refugees since 2015 already contributed to the prevention of further crises in Europe’s neighborhood. Some of the panelists also argued that progress to modernize European military capabilities and to better coordinate the procurement of defense equipment is more important than higher defense budgets.
The Trump administration’s insistence that NATO should increase its investments in counterterrorism efforts could lead to severe disagreements between the U.S. administration and the European allies in the next years. But at the moment, nobody knows what exactly the Trump administration will demand from the European allies. Because U.S. commitment to NATO and European security was the most prominent point of discussion, panelists pointed out that topics like Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty, the situation in Syria, or the crisis in Ukraine did not get much attention.