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Preventing a Credibility Crisis in America's Most Important Alliance

Author: Rebecca Friedman Lissner, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow
March 10, 2017
War on the Rocks


In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Donald Trump revisited one of his favorite hobby horses: free-riding alliance partners. He proclaimed:

We expect our partners, whether in NATO, in the Middle East, or the Pacific — to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations, and pay their fair share of the cost.

Even as the president affirmed the historic bonds uniting the transatlantic community, no words can paper over Trump’s infamously skeptical attitude toward allies in general and NATO in particular.

Of all the heterodox statements Trump made over the course of the campaign, transition, and his first weeks in the White House, two continue to reverberate in European capitals: first, his assertion that NATO is “obsolete” and, second, the contention that the U.S. commitment to Article 5 — NATO’s security guarantee — could be conditional upon a distressed ally’s defense spending. Even if these statements were intended as empty rhetoric, they directly undermined the credibility of America’s alliance commitments. In Trump’s mind, it seems this uncertainty is a positive: If, as he believes, the paramount challenge is negotiating a better deal with NATO, then calling the American commitment into question is a surefire way to make allies feel insecure enough to increase military spending.

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