The results of the American presidential race sent shockwaves around the entire world. President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy marks a radical departure from any president in recent memory: in addition to stating that the United States should pull troops out of South Korea and Japan and replace them with nuclear warheads, he has antagonized South Korea by calling it a “money machine,” and suggested that the United States is being taken advantage of by its East Asian allies. Trump’s proposed NATO policies also raise significant concerns for America’s European allies, and his comments draw into question the United States’ commitment to the alliance under the Trump administration.
Founded in 1949 to check Soviet aggression in a weakened Western Europe, NATO has provided the United States with its most stable partners and allies throughout the post-World War II era. In response to a Soviet Union-backed coup d’etat in Czechoslovakia in and a Soviet blockade of Western Berlin in 1948, major Western European nations banded together for mutual security under the Western European Union’s Defense Organization. Shortly after the military alliance was founded, defense talks with the United States led to America’s inclusion and the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance. To demonstrate the alliance’s commitment to mutual security and cooperation, the treaty’s Article 5 asserted that “an armed attack on one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all.” Under the umbrella of collective defense and the promise of the United States’s full military support, Western Europe was able to recover economically from World War II and build political ties based on collaboration and mutual interests. The United States was able to not only protect democratic institutions abroad and check the Soviet Union’s regional expansion, but also lay the foundations for what would become its bedrock alliance in later times of need. The only time Article 5 has ever been invoked was when European allies declared the 9/11 attacks on the United States “an attack on them all”. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pointed out in his warning to Trump, “This was more than just a symbol. NATO went on to take charge of the operation in Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of European soldiers have served in Afghanistan since… And more than 1,000 have paid the ultimate price in an operation that is a direct response to an attack against the United States.”
Donald Trump’s policies, however, have caused European leaders to question a cornerstone of the alliance: will the United States come to their aid during a crisis? While he has yet to release a formal policy position in regards to NATO, comments he made during the election give European leaders a cause for concern. Trump stated that he would “certainly look at” pulling the United States out of NATO, calling the alliance “obsolete.” When asked in an interview with Wolf Blitzer if the United States should reconsider its role in NATO, Trump said, “yes, because it’s costing us too much money. And frankly they have to put up more money. They’re going to have to put some up also. We’re paying disproportionately. It’s too much.” Many European leaders condemned Trump’s insinuations that the United States’s compliance with Article 5 is conditional. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, both a former Danish prime minister and NATO secretary general, stated that Trump’s comments threatened to undermine the United States’s credibility and encourage further Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.
After Trump’s victory, NATO leaders symbolically gave their congratulations and reiterated the their countries shared principles. Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom reminded the President-elect of the United States’s and the U.K.’s historical ‘special relationship’ and shared values of “freedom, democracy and enterprise.”. Other European leaders, however, have expressed their concerns about Trump’s commitment to NATO in their congratulatory remarks. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel said, “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views,” and stated that the two countries should cooperate “on the basis of those values.” President Andrzej Duda of Poland, which shares a border with Ukraine and is one of the easternmost countries in NATO, wrote in a letter to Trump, that his country appreciated that the United States recently decided to increase its military presence in Poland and hopes for “new opportunities for our co-operation based on mutual commitment.”
If the United States appears to be an uncommitted partner to NATO, Vladimir Putin may see an opportunity to further expand Russia’s sphere of influence in Europe. In recent years, Russia has displayed aggressive behavior towards its neighbors, especially states that were former members of the Soviet bloc. In 2008, Russia sent in troops to support the pro-Russian breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia territory. In 2014, Russian-backed demonstrators and Russian troops ousted the Ukrainian military and government from Crimea, in what the international community widely condemned as an illegal annexation, and today Russian-supported separatists still control much of eastern Ukraine. Trump’s semi-isolationist policies and bitter rhetoric towards the United States’s own allies strains the alliance and signals to Putin that NATO may be unwilling to further escalate conflict with Russia. Putin may take advantage of the United States’s pivot inward to more aggressively support pro-Russian parties abroad and bully its neighbors back into its sphere of influence.
A major point of contention with between Russia and NATO is the expansion of the alliance’s membership eastward. Since 1999, ten countries that were either former members of the Warsaw Pact or part of the Soviet Union have joined the alliance for mutual defence and protection against aggressive Russian actions. Some Western member states were resistant to adding members close to Russia border for fear of antagonizing Russian leadership, especially given Russia’s control of much of the European energy market. Bulgaria, Germany, and Italy respectively receive 90 percent, 50 percent, and 33 percent of their natural gas from Russia, and Deutsche Bank estimates that around one third of Europe’s gas is provided by Russia’s pipelines. Despite its concerns, the United States has pushed the NATO border further eastward to check Russian expansionism and harassment. However, doubts of the United States’s commitment to the alliance under the Trump administration would likely discourage potential members from joining and deepen European fears of antagonizing Putin.
Through decades of shifting geopolitical landscapes, the United States and Western Europe have consistently been each other’s most reliable partners. From the beginnings of the Cold War to the War on Terror, NATO brought democratic nations together in mutual defense, international cooperation, and liberal solidarity in the face of ideological warfare and regional instability. To see that its next president may make his support during a crisis contingent on how much its member states pay is disconcerting to the other members who have looked to the United States for leadership in times of crisis. NATO has withstood immeasurable outside pressure and rallied against the odds, but a Trump presidency could whittle away at the trust underlying the alliance from the inside. Its enemies, seeing cracks in the wall, may seek to exploit its weakness for their own gain: a dangerous proposition, in a world where unity is more important than ever.
Image source: Flikr/ U.S. Army Europe