Foreign policy seldom matters to the outcome of U.S. presidential elections. But presidential elections matter immensely for U.S. foreign policy. The 2024 election could prove the latter point, especially when it comes to NATO.
The world’s most successful alliance celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary on April 4. As that date approaches, expect an outpouring of tributes to the alliance on both sides of the Atlantic, and just as important, on both sides of the political aisle in the United States. One person, however, won’t be applauding: Donald Trump.
Trump has argued for decades that NATO membership hurts the United States more than it helps. As president, he considered withdrawing from the alliance. One senior advisor says he nearly announced a withdrawal in 2018. Earlier this month, a senior European official said that Trump told European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in 2020: “You need to understand that if Europe is under attack we will never come to help you and to support you.”
The intervening years haven’t increased Trump’s appreciation for the alliance. He now pledges “to finish the process we began under my administration of fundamentally reevaluating NATO's purpose and NATO's mission.”
Trump’s domination of the Republican presidential race has fueled fears that NATO’s days may be numbered. Those fears explain why Congress inserted language in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) last month prohibiting the president from terminating U.S. membership in the alliance without two-thirds support of the Senate or the approval of both houses of Congress.
You might think that settles the question of NATO’s future. But as is often the case with the law, things aren’t that simple. It is a bedrock legal principle that Congress cannot claim through statute powers not given to it by the Constitution. So the critical question is whether presidents have constitutional authority to terminate treaties unilaterally.
And here’s the rub. Or at least the first rub. That question has never been definitively settled. The Supreme Court had the chance to decide it forty-five years ago when Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona and more than a dozen of his fellow lawmakers challenged President Jimmy Carter’s unilateral termination of the Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan. The Court, however, declined to hear the Goldwater v. Carter case. (A similar challenge to President George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw the United States from the ABM treaty never made it to the Supreme Court.)
So in a second term, Trump could withdraw the United States from NATO and dare the Court to overrule him. There’s ample precedent for presidents ignoring statutes they see as unconstitutional. Indeed, administration lawyers would argue that a president has a duty to ignore unconstitutional laws. Administration lawyers would also know that the Supreme Court tends to favor the president in foreign affairs cases.
In assessing whether Trump was empowered to terminate the NATO treaty, the Supreme Court would give weight to the fact that Congress asserted its understanding of its powers with the provision in the NDAA. But that assertion would not be dispositive. (In Goldwater v. Carter, the Court ignored a sense-of-the-Senate resolution contesting Carter’s decision.) Administration lawyers would argue that there’s no evidence that the framers gave the Senate or Congress a say in nullifying a treaty. (Indeed, there’s no evidence that they discussed the question at the Constitutional Convention.) Beyond that, the Senate did not condition its approval of the NATO treaty in 1949 on it, or Congress as a whole, having a say in whether to exit the alliance.
The Court might rule against Trump. But even so, the Senate’s “win” would likely be a Pyrrhic victory. The legal challenge would take time to hear. (A year passed between Carter’s announcement of his intent to terminate the Taiwan treaty and the Supreme Court’s decision not to consider the case.) NATO’s future would be at best in limbo during that time. Most member states—and just as important, NATO’s adversaries—would likely conclude that the alliance had been irreparably damaged regardless of what the Court decided.
Which gets to the second rub. NATO effectiveness doesn’t rest on what its founding treaty says. It rests on the belief that the United States will come to the aid of any member state under attack. Shake that belief and the organization withers. For that reason, Trump doesn’t need to formally terminate U.S. membership to cripple NATO. His very hostility could have much the same effect.
So, yes. NATO is very much on the ballot in 2024.
Biden and Trump were the big winners in Tuesday night’s New Hampshire primary. The national Democratic Party did not recognize the New Hampshire vote, which is why Biden wasn’t on the ballot. The wisdom of that decision came into question when Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips joined the race. Biden supporters organized a write-in campaign to avoid a repeat of 1968 when Lyndon Johnson beat Senator Eugene McCarthy only narrowly as a write-in candidate and then left the race. Biden (77,061) garnered more than three times as many votes as a write-in candidate as Phillips did (24,335), even though the Minnesota congressman was on the ballot. Marianne Williamson, who was also on the ballot, received 5,006 votes. Roughly 4,700 registered Democrats wrote Nikki Haley’s name on the ballot, while slightly more than 2,000 wrote in Trump. Both Phillips and Williamson remain in the race.
Trump followed up his big win in Iowa, which led Ron DeSantis, Asa Hutchinson, and Vivek Ramaswamy to end their campaigns, with an equally impressive win in New Hampshire. In doing so, he became the first candidate in more than four decades to win both nominating events. Despite losing in New Hampshire, the state most likely to go her way in the early nominating contests, Haley vowed to remain in the race. She and her supporters are likely to come under intense pressure to exit the race. Trump has already vowed that anyone who donates to Haley’s campaign “will be permanently barred from the MAGA camp.”
A Maine judge last week put on hold a decision by the state’s secretary of state to bar Trump from appearing on the ballot in the Maine primary. The judge ruled that Maine’s secretary of state should revisit her ruling “as necessary in light of the United States Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision” on Trump’s lawsuit challenging the Colorado Supreme Court for kicking him off the ballot there. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on Trump’s lawsuit on February 8. According to the New York Times, Trump’s right to appear on the ballot is being challenged in thirty-five states.
The Candidates in Their Own Words
Trump promised at a campaign rally in New Hampshire last weekend to “build an Iron Dome over our country, a state-of-the-art missile defense shield.”
It wasn’t clear from the context whether Trump literally meant a replica of the Iron Dome system that Israel has developed and which defends against short-range rockets, missiles, and artillery. Unless Canada and Mexico began lining the northern and southern borders of the United States with rocket forces, an Iron Dome-like system wouldn’t add anything to U.S. security. Even then, most of the United States can’t be reached by short-range missiles. If Trump had in mind a shield against long-range ballistic missiles, the Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency has spent some $200 billion since 2002 on that goal. Despite this spending, Ronald Reagan’s vision of using missile defenses to render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete” remains a dream.
Trump issued a statement on Truth Social yesterday encouraging “all willing States to deploy their [national] guards to Texas to prevent the entry of Illegals, and to remove them back across the Border.” In recent weeks, Trump has also pressed Republican lawmakers to abandon efforts to hammer out a bipartisan deal on the southern border unless they get everything they want, which isn’t about to happen. Some Republican senators have vented their anger over what they see as Trump’s effort to kill the deal.
At a CNN town hall last week in New Hampshire a self-described Haley supporter asked her how she would “address the Houthi rebels in the Red Sea and the provocations without expanding the war in the Middle East?” She largely sidestepped the question by arguing that “all of this could have been prevented” if not for Biden’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan and his failure to take a tough line with Iran. She did offer that the United States should “go and punch them [the Iranians] hard” because “that is what they respond to.”
Haley returned to the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan at a campaign rally in South Carolina on Wednesday. She argued that none of foreign policy crises the United States faces would be happening “had we not had that debacle in Afghanistan.” She didn’t say how she could reverse the damage by the withdrawal, though she did insist that “when I am president, we will no longer give money to countries that hate America.”
She also urged her audience not to “let Biden tell you that China is a competitor, because I dealt with China every single day at the United Nations. They never looked at us as a competitor; they always looked at us as an enemy. We’ve got to start looking at them the way they look at us.”
What the Pundits Are Saying
Politico’s Nahal Toosi spoke with a dozen current and former ambassadors to the United States and reached a bleak conclusion: They are “warning that America’s poisonous politics are hurting its security, its economy, its friends and its standing as a pillar of democracy and global stability.”
Harvard Professor Graham Allison argued in Foreign Affairs that the mere prospect that Trump could return to the White House is “already reshaping geopolitics.” The yawning gap between Trump’s and Joe Biden’s worldviews mean that “on every issue—from negotiations on climate or trade or NATO’s support for Ukraine to attempts to persuade Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, or Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to act—Biden and his foreign policy team are finding themselves increasingly handicapped as their counterparts weigh Washington’s promises or threats against the likelihood that they will be dealing with a very different government a year from now.”
Harvard professor and Foreign Policy columnist Stephen Walt wrote that when it comes to foreign policy “a second Trump term may not be that different from what Biden would do should he win another four years in office.” Walt predicted that Trump would likely be “erratic, mercurial, boorish, and confrontational—especially toward America’s NATO allies” and that he “may try to take the United States out of NATO.” Nonetheless, Walt contends that the differences between Biden 2 and Trump 2 would be “subtle.”
The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor argued that Haley and Trump aren’t that much different on foreign policy even if the former president has lambasted his first ambassador to the United Nations “as a ‘warmonger’ beloved by ‘globalists.’” Taylor noted that Haley praised Trump’s foreign policy when she was his UN ambassador, which would seem to be a requirement for the job. But Taylor also noted that for all Haley’s talk about being an internationalist, she “isn’t much of a multilateralist, promising last year to defund the system as ‘much as possible.’ She embraces some conspiratorial Trumpian rhetoric, describing the World Health Organization as ‘bought and paid for by the Chinese.’”
The Washington Post’s Michael Kranish explored Haley’s time as U.S. ambassador at the United Nations. He concluded that “even as she clashed with Trump on some key foreign policy views, she resisted publicly criticizing him, instead pushing for meetings and phone conversations—access that alienated her from some other White House officials. She announced abruptly in October 2018 that she would leave the job, but unlike many others in Trump’s administration, she waited years before forcefully speaking out against his presidential record.”
The Campaign Schedule
The South Carolina Democratic primary, the first official nominating event on the Democrats’ calendar, is eight days away (February 3, 2024).
Oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on whether Colorado can bar Trump from appearing on the state’s primary ballot is thirteen days away (February 8, 2024).
The South Carolina Republican primary is twenty-nine days away (February 24, 2024).
The State of the Union address is forty-one days away (March 7, 2024).
The start of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee is 171 days away (July 15, 2024).
The start of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago is 206 days away (August 19, 2024).
Election Day is 284 days away.
Inauguration Day is 360 days away.
Sinet Adous and Michelle Kurilla assisted in the preparation of this post.