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The old days when NATO’s European allies could shrug off criticism from the United States have come to an end. Under U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, the Europeans will no longer be let off the hook.
They received ample warning from Mike Pence, the U.S. vice president, on February 18. Speaking to a packed audience on day two of the 2017 Munich Security Conference—and after German Chancellor Angela Merkel had delivered her speech—Pence didn’t mince his words. His message to this annual gathering of leaders, diplomats, and defense and security experts was this: “The U.S. will remain an unshakeable supporter of NATO” and an unshakeable ally for the Europeans. But, he said, this can no longer be a one-way street. The Europeans have to pay up.
On the one hand, Pence’s speech will certainly reassure the Eastern European members of NATO. They were very concerned that Trump would weaken the U.S. commitment to the alliance. After all, he had called NATO obsolete. They were worried that the administration in Washington would lift the sanctions imposed on Russia after it annexed Crimea and invaded parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014. And there were concerns that Trump would even renege on the idea of collective defense enshrined in Article 5 of NATO’s Washington Treaty.
Pence put paid to those concerns. “Our shared values are the source of our enduring bond,” he said. “The American people will never forget NATO invoking Article 5” after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. And, he insisted, the United States would hold Russia accountable.
On the other hand, values and support cannot be taken for granted. They have to be protected, and that means spending more on defense. “The United States and only four other member states meet this standard,” Pence said, referring to the pledge allies made at the NATO summit in Wales in September 2014 to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense.
“Many others, including our larger allies, haven’t met their goal,” he added. It was clear which countries Pence was referring to: Germany and others. The vice president went on, “The United States expects its allies to keep their word. The time has come to do more.” NATO has been warned.
Pence, who several times referred to Trump, also insisted that the United States was back in business. It would build up its military. “Under President Trump’s leadership, the United States will be stronger than ever before. We will restore the arsenal of democracy.” At the same time, Pence told his European audience, “the United States will always be your ally.”
Apart from the need to increase defense spending, Pence added another item to NATO’s to-do list. He wants the alliance to—as he put it—“evolve.” He believes the alliance should “do more, much more,” especially on counterterrorism, something that NATO is now trying to grapple with.
“NATO is taking an increased focus on counterterrorism. It marks a positive strategic shift in NATO. We must be as dominant in the digital world as we are in the physical world,” he opined. But that also means the United States and some of its European allies must be willing to share intelligence. This does not currently happen in any substantial or consistent manner. One reason is a lack of trust between the Americans and Europeans.
Sitting in the front row listening to Pence was Merkel. Germany has come under repeated criticism from the United States for not meeting NATO’s 2 percent pledge. When asked about this failed target, Merkel said the country had already increased defense spending by 8 percent over the past year. And besides, she added, “it’s a question of absorption.”