Donald Trump’s blistering criticisms of European allies at the bi-annual NATO Summit this week is the right message delivered the wrong way. Call it sledgehammer diplomacy.
The president opened with remarks in Brussels accusing those in attendance “delinquent” in their defense spending. He then singled out Germany as a “captive” of the Russian Federation, citing exaggerated figures to illustrate Berlin’s dependence on the Russian gas. Yet beneath these remarks, which roiled the Germans, lies a certain truth.
NATO stalwarts France and Germany have indeed fallen short of their 2 percent GDP defense spending commitments, promised at the 2014 Wales NATO summit. From among the top three European countries, at 2.1 percent of GDP, only the United Kingdom is in compliance.
On my recent trip to Berlin to discuss the U.S.-German strategic cooperation in the framework of the high-level Loisach Group, the majority of participating German representatives energetically pushed back against fulfilling the Wales NATO budgetary criteria quoting political considerations.
Trump’s point that the United States is effectively subsidizing European security is correct: aside from the U.K., the U.S. – which allocates 3.5 percent of GDP to defense – is joined only by Greece and the geographically vulnerable and small Baltic states in meeting NATO expenditure guidelines. If Brexit is successful, 80 percent of NATO budgets will come from the non-EU members: U.S., Canada, Britain, and Turkey.
The deal-maker-in-chief has upped the ante by demanding a doubling of the NATO spending guidelines, pushing his allies to now meet a 4 percent GDP expenditure on their militaries. Though details are not public, the Europeans may have at least tentatively agreed to increase their defense spending. However, President Emmanuel Macron of France has already denied Trump’s claims. More acrimony will ensue for sure.
Then there is the matter of Germany’s dependence on Russian energy, the underwater pipeline called North Stream II, and the European Union’s energy security writ large.
This blog has covered before the dangers of North Stream. Russian energy penetration into the EU is a paramount security threat – both for Europe and the United States.
In the words of Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR):
“Nord Stream 2 strikes at heart of NATO unity. The pipeline gets cheap Russian gas to Germany while bypassing smaller Eastern European nations, allowing Russia to pressure them while Germany is held harmless. No amount of preening in Berlin will cover this nakedly selfish policy.”
When President Trump accused Germany of relying on Russia for 70 percent of its energy needs, he was factually incorrect. But Germany does depend on Russian for between 60 – 70 percent of its natural gas needs, with gas making up just 20 percent of Germany’s energy mix.
The completion of Russia’s Nord Stream II, designed to double the capacity of the existing 55 billion cubic meter (bcm) pipeline from Vyborg Russia to Germany, would certainly push Berlin’s dependence beyond 75 percent and perhaps higher, given Germany’s politically motivated decision to move forward with the retirement of its nuclear power reactors.
Trump’s comments have a point, his mistake notwithstanding. Germany is a humming export-led economy with manufacturing at its core. German heavy industries operate for the most part on cheap natural gas provided by Russia. If Moscow decided to close the pipes during winter – not beyond the realm of possibility – it happened in 2009 and beyond — German citizens, like their economy, would freeze. This is to say nothing of the NATO member country’s need for Russian oil, which constitutes 40 percent of Deutschland’s consumption.
All in all, Germany relies on Russia for 20 – 25 percent of its total energy needs, a challenge nevertheless from a security perspective. The realization of North Stream II will only heighten Germany’s vulnerability, and afford Russia a greater strategic range of motion in European affairs.
Trumps concerns over NATO spending and European energy security are well founded. However, his brash approach in Brussels may prove counter-productive. Real diplomacy is done in quiet rooms behind closed doors, not in public – and with a sledgehammer.