The President Errs on NATO
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an international defensive alliance that was formed in 1949 to combat Soviet aggression and the spread of communism after World War II. The alliance is unique due to its massive size, evolving global scope, and Article 5 collective defense policy, which defines an attack against one member as an attack against the entire group.
In January 2017, President Trump stated in an interview with German newspaper Bild that NATO was obsolete. His discontent with the alliance is threefold. First, the he argues the US funds a lion’s share of NATO’s annual defense budget. Second, the President also believes that post-Cold War Russia, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, does not represent the same existential threat to Western democracy as the Soviet Union once did. Lastly, Trump consistently claimed in the 2016 presidential campaign that NATO has failed to employ effective counterterrorism strategies, a key component of the alliance’s global security policy. The last sentiment was one he repeated during his calamitous trip to Europe in July.
On that outing, Trump implored European NATO partners to lighten America’s financial burden by allocating 4% of each nation’s annual GDP towards the alliance’s defense budget, a stark increase compared to most member’s current commitments. Such aggressive rhetoric provoked angry, incredulous responses from NATO members.
Trump has failed to recognize NATO’s ability to maintain relative world peace. His complaints do not accurately reflect the reality or objectives of American foreign policy post-World War II, nor how it was, and still is, necessary for America to project military power in Western Europe.
Defensive alliances like NATO allow for members to communicate and cooperate militarily and identify common interests, both in peacetime and during war. They are crafted so as to increase the relative influence of the group, to create or maintain a balance of power, and to bear weight in bargaining situations with opposing states. NATO functions as an extension of American post-Cold War power, and in doing so deters an increasingly aggressive Russia.
However, using NATO as a means to maintain America’s superpower status or to contain the relative power of the Russian state may no longer be feasible. Trump’s comments call into question NATO’s credibility, specifically the US’s commitment to collective defense, and have damaged American relations with other NATO allies.
Additionally, NATO influences bargaining situations because the alliance is an effective deterrent for aggression. It represents a collective willingness to fight, as well as organized, cooperative military engagement in the event of war. Such deterrence can act as the crucial preventative measure that maintains peace.
However, NATO can only be successful if there exist strong common interests between members and if aiding a fellow member-state in the event of attack is the preferred alternative to abandonment. This is how successful defensive alliances obtain credibility. If, for example, a potential adversary believed that several alliance members’ claims to collective defense were hollow and that they would abandon each other, then the alliances would not be credible and could not influence a bargaining situation. All alliance members must demonstrate their willingness to cooperate, or the alliance cannot deter aggression.
Trump’s rhetoric certainly weakens NATO’s credibility. His refusal to publicly endorse Article 5 fostered uncertainty, both within NATO and abroad, over whether the United States is committed to defending Western Europe and to the group’s more recent efforts to promote global security. The lack of information over the US’s commitment to collective defense could potentially result in a bargaining failure with Russia, and that could lead further to conflict.
NATO took advantage of Soviet collapse in 1991 and swiftly moved to increase its membership, wrestling much of Eastern Europe from the Russian sphere of influence. Since 2000, several Warsaw Pact states (former members of the Communist-era Soviet Bloc) have joined NATO. Ukraine attempted to follow suit in 2008, having established a basic military partnership with the alliance several years earlier.
Throughout the last decade, however, a resurgent Russian state led by President Vladimir Putin has interpreted NATO expansion eastward as a direct threat to Russian regional supremacy and an insult to the country’s status as a global military power. In 2014, Russian military forces invaded Ukraine and annexed the region of Crimea, an ethnically Russian enclave of eastern Ukraine with valuable access to warm water shipping lanes in the Black Sea.
Such interstate conflict is uncharacteristically aggressive in contemporary international politics, a practice widely assumed to be unacceptable following World War II and the dawn of the United Nations. Russia was able to act so brashly because Ukraine was not yet in NATO (their bid was rejected, primarily because the Bush Administration did not want to further provoke Russia). Ukraine could not successfully call upon any states to aid in its defense. Other states had no reason to fight because they were not in a collective defense alliance. The US and other NATO members were unwilling to risk warfare with Russia. They didn’t have to.
NATO’s collective defense policy is what ensures its power and credibility in bargaining situations. If that validity continues to be called into question, aggressive states like Russia could engage in crisis bargaining in order to gain leverage or could call Trump’s bluff and invade a NATO member. This would force the President to choose between his posturing, which seems to threaten abandonment, or adhering to Article 5 — a political lose-lose. Trump’s comments have further strained ties with America’s European NATO allies, worsening a relationship which began corroding in 2016; the result of the Trump Administration’s protectionist economic policies, which sparked a wave of US-European Union trade disputes and tariffs on goods like steel and automobiles.
It is true that America pays for the majority of NATO’s defense budget — approximately 74 percent in 2014 — but there are several explanations for this. The U.S. vastly outpaces all other NATO partners in economic output. The next closest heavyweight in NATO is Germany, which produces roughly 20 percent of the US GDP. America also far outspends its fellow NATO members on defense. In 2014, the US spent 3.6 percent of its GDP on military expenditures, amounting to just over 611 billion USD. The next closest NATO defense spender, the UK, sacrificed about two percent of its 2014 GDP. In 2014, the military expenditures of European NATO members and Canada combined amounted to roughly 272 billion USD.
During the Cold War, Congress consistently voted to supply disproportionate funds and troops to NATO. At the time, it was necessary — the United States needed to effectively prevent the spread of communism into Western Europe. America accommodated smaller NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe and Western European states still recovering from the devastation of World War II. None had the necessary disposable GDP or the proper military capabilities to effectively counter the Soviets like the United States possessed. In return for American protection, European states allowed the US to establish military bases in their territories.
This tradeoff allowed the US to project military power into Europe and maintain the Cold War balance of power. Additionally, the skewed proportion of American funding has continued to allow the US to assume the primary leadership role in the alliance. This means the United States can control the alliance’s policies and direction, using it as an extension of state power in the post-Cold War landscape. This was extremely effective in combating the Soviet Union. It is also likely why Russia has adopted a more aggressive leadership role in international relations under the leadership of President Putin.
Trump is incorrect in asserting that Russia under Putin is not an aggressive, threatening state attempting to undermine America’s authority in the global sphere. Without a rival deterrent, Putin seeks to expand Russia’s relative power once again, at the expense of allied NATO states.
President Trump is similarly errant in claiming NATO is an obsolete defensive alliance, considering the organization can still function as an extension of American post-Cold War domination on the international stage. In doing so, NATO pushes back on an increasingly aggressive Russia. Trump’s comments have called into question NATO’s credibility, however, and have damaged US relations with other allies as well. Now, because of the President’s actions, NATO may no longer be able enforce the ‘New World Order.’