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As Trump points to 'America first' principle, NATO tries to make its case

A German army soldier provides security while conducting a patrol during Swift Response 16 training exercise at the Hohenfels Training Area, Germany, Jun. 21, 2016. President-elect Donald J. Trump on Sunday issued a reminder that “America first” will be the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy in the years ahead — a vague assertion that has left wide speculation about what that means for the U.S. military role in the NATO alliance.

NATHANIEL ALLEN/U.S. ARMY

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 14, 2016

Europe’s top security officials are scrambling to make the case that NATO is more than a system for fleecing American taxpayers even as President-elect Donald Trump is insisting that “America first” will be the guiding principle of his foreign policy.

NATO’s top official took the highly unusual step over the weekend of issuing an indirect warning to Trump, saying that any retreat from NATO would upend a nearly 70-year security pact that has helped keep the peace in Europe.

“Going it alone is not an option, either for Europe or for the United States,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wrote in a commentary Saturday in The Guardian newspaper.

During the campaign, Trump repeatedly questioned the value of the alliance and the cost of America’s continued participation.

Although the U.S. gross domestic product and the combined GDPs of NATO’s other 27 members are nearly equal, America’s defense spending accounts for more than two-thirds of the alliance’s total military expenditures. During the campaign Trump warned the alliance that this discrepancy was unsustainable and that those allies who did not “reimburse” the United States would not be able to count on America’s military help in the future.

“When I look at the world and you look at how various places are taking advantage of our country, and I say it, and I say it very proudly, it’s going to be America first,” Trump said on “60 Minutes” in his first interview since the election.

With Trump’s overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom Trump has said he hopes to improve relations, some allies have expressed concern that the U.S. will shift away from deterrence measures in the Baltics and Poland that have infuriated Moscow.

Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine prompted a sweeping reappraisal by the U.S. regarding the security situation in Europe. After years of military downsizing in Europe, the Pentagon has moved more rotational troops, tanks and artillery to the Continent, and  top U.S. military commanders have called Russia the top security concern.

NATO has embarked on its largest reinforcement of Europe since the end of the Cold War, energizing an alliance  that only three years ago was struggling to find a raison d’etre. Trump’s rise appears to have the trans-Atlantic alliance again on its heels, having to prove its relevance to a skeptical U.S. president.

“We face the greatest challenges to our security in a generation. This is no time to question the value of the partnership between Europe and the United States,” Stoltenberg said.

In his commentary, Stoltenberg offered an inventory of how NATO has helped secure U.S. and European security interests over the decades, citing European support for the war in Afghanistan. He also touted more recent efforts by allies to improve their state of military readiness, such as plans for multinational NATO battalions in the Baltics and Poland.

He went on to acknowledge underinvestment in defense by allies over the years and recent steps to reverse that trend.

“The partnership between Europe and America is founded on deeply shared interests and common values. At the same time, a viable partnership depends on all contributing their fair share,” Stoltenberg said.

He noted that the U.S. accounts for almost 70 percent of NATO defense spending and that the U.S.  has “rightly called for a more equitable sharing of the burden.”

In 2014, NATO allies pledged to boost spending to 2 percent of GDP within a decade. Since then, they have gradually upped investments, and spending is expected to rise for a third consecutive year in Europe.

Stoltenberg’s focus on NATO’s efforts to increase spending coincides with statements by Germany’s leaders, who have talked about Europe playing a greater role in its own defense.

NATO members have acknowledged for years the need to invest more in defense, but such talk has amounted to little more than lip service.

The European Union’s foreign ministers assembled in Brussels  on Sunday to gauge the ramifications of a Trump presidency on relations in Europe, and to boost European defense cooperation.

Since Trump’s election, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has said as Europe’s leading power, Germany will need to take on a larger security role, becoming more self-reliant in the wake of an American that is potentially turning inward.

“Europe needs common political will for more security policy relevance. The outcome of the election in America could provide an additional impetus,” von der Leyen said in a commentary in the Rheinische Post.

vandiver.john@stripes.com
 

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