Navigating NATO Within the Aftermath of the U.S. Presidential Election
During the three U.S. presidential debates and broader political campaign discourse, the issue of the United States’ involvement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was one of the biggest foreign policy differences between President-elect Donald Trump and Secretary Hillary Clinton. Despite their conflicting views, there is merit in observing what past precedent and data actually illustrates about NATO’s efficacy as a mutual defense mechanism and how much of a role the U.S. should take.
NATO was founded in 1949 to serve three specific purposes: (1) to deter Soviet expansionism, (2) forbid the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent, and (3) encourage European political integration. However, in the modern day, NATO’s most significant role is as a guarantee of collective defense, which is expressed in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty: “armed attack against one or more of [member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” Guidelines require all allies to contribute 2% of gross domestic product towards defense expenditure, but according to annual data provided by NATO, only five of the 28 NATO countries actually meet this guideline (United States, Greece, United Kingdom, Estonia, and Poland).
One of Trump’s cornerstone foreign policy positions is that the United States should reassess the dollar amount of its financial contribution to NATO. In a July 20 interview with the New York Times, he said that “If we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries….then yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, ‘Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.’”
Not surprisingly, Trump’s comments triggered alarms bells throughout Europe, casting unprecedented concern among allies over whether or not, under a Trump presidency, the United States would turn a deaf ear to a military threat against a NATO member and fail to uphold Article 5. This rhetoric is dangerously careless and needlessly inflammatory, especially bearing in mind that the U.S., in response to the September 11 attacks, is the only country in the organization’s 60+ year history to have ever invoked Article 5. There is no doubt that the United States and NATO share the same security objectives. This is especially important considering deteriorating relations between Russia and the United States, who have both recently held military exercises 150 miles apart from each other in Europe's southeastern Balkan region. This is not to mention Russia’s staggering aggression towards Ukraine. The balance of power in Europe relies on a fully capable trans-Atlantic alliance in which the United States plays a principal role.
However, NATO’s significance warrants that we elevate our discourse beyond partisan lines. There are legitimate concerns in the international defense community, which predate Mr. Trump’s campaign for president, that NATO lacks the financial resources and military means to be a cost-effective mutually beneficial armed coalition. While Mr. Trump’s personal and business relations with Russia are dubious, he does highlight the diplomatic evasiveness seen in European allies that occurs when talking about money and how much money governments should actually allocate for hard-to-quantify objectives such as mutual security. According to Jonathan Eyal, the director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and the other Baltic States “should lead by example” and increase their military spending to meet the 2% guideline.
Just because NATO is the most successful military alliance in history, this does not mean that such concerns should be ignored or painted over with a broad brush. In terms of the U.S. election, Hillary Clinton could have done a better job in addressing these legitimate concerns to an American electorate that is concerned about domestic issues and wary of military intervention abroad.
- Samuel Kim