Headlines about the future of transatlantic relations, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in particular, in late 2016 and early 2017 mostly warned of doom and gloom. Part of this sentiment could have been attributed to a sense of disorientation—even declinism—following the success of Donald J. Trump’s U.S. presidential bid.
Whither NATO Under Trump
During his presidential campaign, Trump did his fair share to sow doubts about U.S. commitment to the transatlantic alliance. In particular, Trump’s idea of allied reciprocity—that the United States would only defend allies if they increased their military spending—and other conditions under which the United States would act in defense of a NATO ally sent shivers down spines not just in countries within the alliance’s eastern flank, but also in Western Europe. Trump bashed the NATO member countries that failed to meet the defense expenditure target of 2 percent of GDP, which was set during NATO’s 2014 summit in Wales. To add insult to injury, he disparaged the alliance as “obsolete” in light of today’s security challenges, and thus too costly for U.S. taxpayers to support. The fact that Trump’s transactional approach to alliance politics was rebuked in both U.S. conservative and progressive circles did not pacify the anxiety that had already set in.
From the vantage point of U.S. foreign policy guiding principles, Trump’s ascent to power heralded an end to the long-running dispute between the Hamiltonian and Wilsonian traditions, which share the belief that the United States should be at the center of a liberal international order, even if the rationale behind it varies. Wilsonians promote the virtues of a global liberal order in terms of values rather than economics, which lies at the heart of Hamiltonians’ convictions. Out of this shared belief arose the post–World War II consensus, which, among other things, resulted in the birth of NATO in the late 1940s.
Trump, in contrast, ran as a champion of the Jacksonian tradition: he was less concerned with upholding the U.S. global role and more focused on safeguarding U.S. values and traditions, with the inclination to assign the U.S. government responsibility to advance narrowly defined security and economic interests. In his inaugural address, President Trump declared that “from this day forward, it is going to be only ‘America First.’ Every decision … will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” The crux of this shift was then summarized by the president in his address to Congress: “My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” Therefore, concerns about the future of U.S. commitment to the transatlantic community were not unfounded.
The Trump administration seemed to acknowledge this uncertainty during the annual Munich Security Conference in February. Trump administration officials went out of their way to underline the enduring importance of NATO as the United States’ principal alliance: Vice President Mike Pence assured allies of the United States’ “unwavering” commitment to NATO, while Defense Secretary Jim Mattis underscored the alliance’s importance for global security.
Old Wine in a New Bottle?
What went largely unnoticed was that, while verbally reassuring European allies, the Trump administration stayed the course with respect to pushing to eliminate the sizable variance among NATO members’ financial commitments to common security. This issue is guaranteed to dominate the agenda of the NATO summit in Brussels in late May. Secretary Mattis stated that unless European NATO members start taking their commitments seriously, the United States would be forced to “moderate” its commitment to the alliance.
However, it would be a mistake to associate the United States’ growing unease toward the European failure to meet the 2 percent spending target solely with Trump’s agenda. Former officials from President Barack Obama’s cabinet famously warned NATO allies about the danger of neglecting to make adequate financial contributions to common defense and, by extension, to joint military operations. Nor are U.S. calls for continued adaptation of the alliance to better respond to security challenges something novel. Notably, the selection of Mattis, former head of NATO’s transformation command in Virginia, as secretary of defense could be an indication of the importance that this administration assigns to keeping the alliance an influential security policy actor.
What is new, however, is the sense of urgency that the Trump administration has introduced to the transatlantic discourse. Under President Trump, the United States is not a “reluctant leader”—it is an “impatient leader” that does not shy away from disciplining its partners. At times this impatience generates unnecessary tension, and can unintentionally undercut the overarching goals of U.S. policy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Washington in March is a case in point. The U.S. president used this opportunity to apply extra pressure on Merkel to shore up Germany’s defense expenditure, overlooking the fact that Berlin is already taking steps—however measured these steps may appear to be from the U.S. perspective—toward meeting the 2 percent target.
Merkel’s steady leadership is indispensable if Germany is to stay this course, especially in the very volatile period of a parliamentary election. Defense spending was already an election issue, with one of the leading figures of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, Sigmar Gabriel, warning against a new “arms race” with Russia. That he uttered these words in Moscow was no doubt an eyebrow-raising moment. Against this backdrop, Trump’s demands vis-à-vis Germany to compensate the U.S. for extending a security umbrella were anything but helpful, complicating efforts to further boost Germany’s security and defense posture. An increase in expenditures on, say, new equipment, could be criticized as a bow toward Trump’s United States, thus feeding into easily mobilized German anti-Americanism.
One may ask: why is all this important for the future of NATO? U.S.-German relations will be setting the tone of the transatlantic relationship and to a much larger degree than was previously the case. This had already become apparent in the dying days of the Obama administration. For all the controversy that haunted U.S.-German relations—for example, wiretapping of the German chancellor by U.S. intelligence services—Merkel and Obama finished on a very high note, touting the importance of U.S.-German relations for the future of the West and the liberal international order. It was not just a knee-jerk reaction to the election of Donald Trump, who—as the Jacksonian tradition would suggest—is ambivalent at best toward the community of values that binds both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Think Brexit: it may not be about hard security issues that are central to NATO per se. The United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union—but not from Europe, as the Britons are quick to underscore—will take time, and its ultimate shape is yet to be decided. Still, Brexit might unleash initiatives such as a new independence referendum in Scotland that, if it results in Scotland parting ways with the UK, would open a debate about the future of London’s nuclear deterrent—all of the UK’s nuclear-capable submarines use Her Majesty’s Naval Base in Clyde, Scotland—and more generally about the UK’s contribution to European security. A distracted and embattled UK, engaged in protracted negotiations with Brussels over the details of its future relationship with the rest of Europe, would have a hard time protecting its position as the United States’ principal European security partner. Germany, with its economic prowess and steadily rising military expenditure, is already the United States’ most important European partner.
Another factor that will likely shape the dynamics of transatlantic relations in the coming months, and possibly years, is the United States’ growing entanglement in East Asia. In other words, mounting challenges and crises in the Far East are likely to drain the attention and resources of an administration that came into office with little appetite to increase U.S. foreign commitments. These include Chinese maritime claims and disputes with neighboring countries, some of which are bound with the United States by defense treaties, the continued intransigence of the regime in Pyongyang, and tensions resulting from internal developments in countries that have traditionally described themselves as U.S. allies.
North Korea in particular is consuming an increasingly large share of the Trump administration’s bandwidth. For now, Washington is responding to the threat posed by Pyongyang with the deployment of a new missile defense system and the positioning of additional naval assets in the region. However, North Korea’s missile potential is steadily expanding. It is estimated that Pyongyang already possesses, but has not yet tested, missiles with a range of more than ten thousand kilometers (six thousand miles), capable of reaching the United States. Once these assets are proven effective, North Korea would be in a position to attack the territory of a NATO member, possibly with an unconventional warhead.
While this threat is still fairly remote from a military point of view, its political consequences are more immediate: growing tension in East Asia might serve as a reinforcing argument for those in the United States who urge European NATO members to do more for common defense. The United States will be too preoccupied with threats emanating from the Korean Peninsula—on top of other, more strategic and long-term challenges—to maintain the backbone of NATO’s conventional deterrence and defense posture in Europe. Europeans will thus be expected to step up their commitments, not because of Trump’s insistence that NATO is costing the United States “a fortune,” but out of strategic necessity.
NATO: Obsolete or Obligatory?
In April, President Trump famously declared NATO was “no longer obsolete” during a meeting with the alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg. It was a welcome change of heart, but it is not a change of policy. The United States will continue to insist that the status quo, in which it vastly outspends allies, is untenable. Thus the period immediately before the NATO leaders’ meeting in Brussels in late May is likely to feature both further calls for increased spending by European members (although some, like Poland, are already meeting their 2 percent obligation), and new spending pledges that would move the alliance toward a semblance of balanced burden sharing between Europe and the United States. Another topic that is likely to reverberate in Brussels is the fight against the so-called Islamic State and terrorism in general. NATO’s role in the campaign against the Islamic State is still fairly limited. However, virtually all member states are contributing to the global coalition to counter the militant group.
Over time, just as president Trump came to appreciate the significance of NATO for the United States, and as the administration shifts to a higher gear once all senior officials have been appointed, the United States can reasonably be expected to follow an alliance policy that puts a premium on greater predictability, especially with respect to rhetoric. Given Trump’s participation, the meeting in Brussels will be the best opportunity for this administration so far to revisit some basics truths about the value of alliances [PDF], and NATO in particular. First, alliances are necessary for enhancing U.S. capabilities, which are vast, but not infinite. Second, despite occasional frustrations and obvious, if unavoidable, political friction, working with allies offers a boost in terms of the legitimacy of U.S. actions. Finally, alliances are a tool for exercising and solidifying leadership, both politically and militarily. As President Trump pursues his goal of “making America great again,” nothing stands in the way of ensuring NATO remains the greatest alliance the United States can fall back upon.