The boring reality of international diplomacy is that much of the heavy lifting takes away from high-level summits, podiums and presidential addresses in front of carefully assembled audiences in foreign lands. Of course, the amateur body language analysts were out in force again during President Trump’s most recent visit to Europe, which included a tub-thumping speech in Poland, intensely scrutinised handshake with President Putin at the G20, and a frosty rebuke from Angela Merkel and several other European leaders for the administration’s unpopular stance on climate change and free trade.
Anxious Europeans looking for crumbs of comfort from the White House would at least have been pleased to hear the President’s firmest yet statement on Article 5, NATO’s collective-defence clause that holds that an attack on one member is an attack on all. It did not go unnoticed that he omitted to mention Article 5 during his speech to fellow NATO leaders in Brussels in May. Senior members of his administration were left scrabbling to reassure allies that the US remained unwavering on the keystone of the NATO alliance. In Warsaw, while reiterating his position that Europe needed to do more on defence, Trump was unambiguous (if grudging) in his insistence that the United States had “demonstrated not merely with words but with its actions that we stand firmly behind Article V”.
While British and European diplomats will have been delighted to have seen these words in print, it is worth remembering that this is a commitment that has been made in America, after lengthy manoeuvrings both within the administrations and on Capitol Hill. That it comes with a heavy stamp of bipartisan legislative approval makes it all the more significant.
On 27 June 2017, the US House of Representatives endorsed by an overwhelming margin (423 to 4 votes) a bipartisan resolution reaffirming the commitment of the United States to NATO’s Article 5, the collective-defence clause that holds that an attack an one member is an attack on all. It represents a particular triumph for House Speaker Paul Ryan, who used the occasion of his visit to Policy Exchange in April to stress that America and its allies need a strong NATO, “now more than ever”. America’s NATO allies, of which Britain remains the most important, should sit up and take note.
Since President Trump’s inauguration in January, foreign policy analysts have expended much energy on the different factions said to be jostling for influence within the White House – from the so-called radicals around Steve Bannon, through to the more establishment figures such as National Security Adviser Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. Yet the almost unanimous decision of the House of Representatives demonstrates the depth of cross-party consensus on the overriding and continued importance of America’s alliance commitments in Europe in the twenty-first century. It punctures some of the more hysterical pronouncements of recent months that the US has given up on leadership of the West. It underscores the fact that there are still deep reserves of the political will necessary to invigorate the alliance. As the resolution says, “NATO remains the foundation of United States foreign policy of promoting a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace.”
Ultimately, such a broad consensus in the House of Representatives will prove much more enduring than the type of grudging recognition of the terms of the original treaty that other NATO members have been so anxious to extract from the White House. What is more, it puts the ball back in the court of the European signatories of NATO who have raised the alarm at Trump while doing very little address their own failings on defence spending.
The driving force behind the move seems to have been Congressman Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House. His “leadership on this important resolution” was foremost in the acknowledgements of the resolution’s co-sponsor, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce. It was in a speech at Policy Exchange in London on 19 April that Paul Ryan – speaking as the most senior representative of the American legislature to visit Europe since President Trump’s election – delivered a powerful and clear message to both American allies and foes.
“Please let it be no ambiguity here,” said Ryan, “NATO is essential. It has been and remains critical to the safety and security of the United States, Great Britain, and the world. And it must be strengthened.” America, he insisted, was “more determined than ever to lead.”
Such sentiments also chime with the views enunciated by Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, in comments also made at Policy Exchange earlier this year, just over three weeks prior to his appointment as National Security Adviser. In his speech, McMaster raised questions about the effectiveness of the “more humble foreign policy” seen in the Obama years. By contrast, he stressed the importance of “deterrence by denial” and the “forward positioning of forces” – two key core components of a successful NATO.
None of this means that the US will stop raising the issue of defence spending by other NATO signatories. But there is growing evidence that firmer commitments by allies to meet their side of the bargain will be rewarded. Notably, it was at a White House press conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis on 9 June – whose country has just bumped defence spending up to 2% – that Trump first announced that he remained committed to Article 5.
This is more than optics. On the substance of America’s commitment, the Trump administration has preserved intact all military measures devised by the Obama administration as part of its response to renewed Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. In fact, Trump’s defence budget unveiled in May actually includes a 40% increase (to $4.8bn) of the funding level set last year by President Obama for the European Reassurance Initiative. This does not look like “strategic disengagement”. In other words, there are more American military resources as well as more American money being allocated by the White House to European defence under Trump. Those advocates of an EU Army as an eventual alternative to NATO need to think carefully about the consequences of getting what they wish.
Viewed another way, it could be said that Trump’s demands that NATO allies do more on defence has already borne some fruit. While the President has used his role to agitate for proactivity, senior members of his team have repeatedly insisted that America remains as committed as ever to Article 5. Should any ambiguity have remained about his administration’s view of the alliance, the House of Representatives offers further reassurance about how America sees its global commitments. It also turns the focus on Europe once again.
Meeting its 2% spending commitment, Britain is a more reliable ally than most. In the context of a hung parliament, foreign policy is going to be a tricky issue to navigate in the next few years. But is it too much to expect a similar resolution passing the House of Commons, whereby the UK reaffirms its commitment to Article 5?