Can Trump Save NATO?

This year marks the 70th anniversary of NATO, and there’s good reason to celebrate.  At first glance, the alliance may appear plagued by trepidation over various escalating concerns, leaving even the institution’s staunchest defenders tossing and turning.  As Charles Kupchan recently pointed out in Foreign Affairs, “Some worry that the growing U.S. preoccupation with East Asia will lure the United States away from its Atlantic calling,” while “NATO watchers are concerned that EU efforts to more deeply integrate European foreign and defense policy could ultimately weaken the Atlantic link.” 

Others simply believe that the alliance is in dire need of a serious structural overhaul, as Barry Posen suggests in a recent New York Times op-ed.  In actuality, the alliance appears to be in incredibly good condition, having shown great dexterity in its evolution from a counterweight against communism to a finely-tuned cornerstone of the post-war, rules-based order.  Seventy years on, we should be extolling the virtues of the greatest military alliance in history, not commemorating what once was, as some experts have suggested.  And for that, we have President Trump to thank (at least in part). 

In recent months, a slew of articles have been penned by experts of great acclaim denouncing Trump for his bombast towards NATO, and his adverse impact on the alliance’s health.  While Douglas Lute and R. Nicholas Burns wrote a piece in The Washington Post castigating Trump as “NATO’s Biggest Problem”, Richard Fontaine decried in The Atlantic that the Commander-in-Chief simply has the alliance “backward.

Since assuming office, Donald Trump’s policy towards NATO has indeed been marked by a rollercoaster of uninhibited impulsivity and brashness.  By day he’s belabored European allies at length over not spending enough on defence.  By night, he’s threatened to pull out of the alliance altogether, while remaining painfully ambiguous about America’s commitment to common defence, the very foundation of NATO.  As a result, it’s clear that Trump has dealt a serious blow to NATO’s solidarity, worsening anxiety on both sides of the atlantic and raising doubts about the alliance’s uncertain future. 

But Trump’s NATOphobia has also yielded unintended dividends, as lawmakers have rushed to reiterate their support for the alliance, only now under threat.  The age-old adage rings true for NATO: you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s [almost] gone.  Even Congress, the epitome of political inaction and crippling partisanship, has become NATO’s very own cheerleader, passing a flurry of legislation recently in support of the alliance.  Just last summer, when Trump was assailing allies at the NATO summit, the House was voting unanimously to pass a resolution of support for the alliance; the Senate did the same with a 97-2 vote.  In January, in response to further leaks that Trump was considering pulling out of the alliance, the House reaffirmed its support for collective defence, voting 357-22 to bar the hypothetical use of federally-issued funds to remove the U.S. from NATO.

For critics to remain credible in their policing of Trump, it is necessary to take note of his achievements (though they may be hard to come by).  The President’s policies towards NATO represent a rare bastion of sanity and reason in an otherwise inept foriegn policy doctrine, providing us with this essential opportunity.

Furthermore, amidst all the hyperbole, Trump does raises some valid points about America’s relationship to NATO.  For one, Trump has been a vocal proponent of limiting the number of new entries into the alliance, particularly from the Balkans, aligning with the consensus of many experts. It’s important to remember that NATO, as opposed to the United Nations (excluding the Security Council), works on a consensus basis.  This worked fine when NATO was established with 12 member states, but has become a topic of concern with the current 29 members. 

In addition, Trump’s fiery rhetoric has been surprisingly effective in spurring much-needed uptakes in defence spending amongst America’s European allies.  In 2018, a resounding 24 of NATO’s 29 members increased their defence spending, while in 2019, 9 states will reach the 2% benchmark, compared to a mere 4 in 2014.  Progress, thanks to Trump, is clearly being made. 

Regardless of your stance on any of the issues mentioned above, one thing that’s indisputable is that Trump has thrown NATO back into the international conversation – where it rightfully belongs. 

Featured Image: President Donald J. Trump and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a NATO family photo. (2018) via Flickr. Public Domain.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

About William Lloyd

William Lloyd is starting at the University of Toronto, Trinity College, this fall, where he plans on double Majoring in International Relations and American Studies. He is also admitted into the Margaret McMillan Trinity One Program. In the past, William has volunteered at Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s constituency office as a communication intern and as a contributing writer for The Borgen Project. While attending North Toronto Collegiate Institute, William served as a team member for the U of T-run Global Ideas Institute, Editor-in-Chief of the school’s award-winning student-run newspaper, and Head Delegate and Club President for the school’s Model UN club, Upon graduation, William was awarded North Toronto’s Commemorative Award, “given to a graduating student recognized by peers for leadership and contributions to the while life of the school,” and was one of five students from a graduating class of over 300 nominated for the school’s Kerr Award, North Toronto’s highest award. William is especially interested in American politics and history, the Middle East, and comparative politics.