The Atlantic Alliance that was born to defend democracy against authoritarianism has survived many crises over its nearly 70 years. But ahead of the NATO Summit on July 11, President Trump’s hostility to our shared interests and values could rupture U.S.-European bonds irreparably just at a time when no major international challenge can be met by one nation alone.
Trump’s open insults to allied heads of state and government are damaging enough. More dangerous, he evidently questions NATO fundamentally — reportedly recently telling G7 leaders that it is “as bad as NAFTA” and costs too much, conjuring a zero-sum albatross. Although successive American administrations have rightly called on allies to contribute more to strengthen their military capabilities and their progress indeed has been too slow, Trump’s antagonistic approach is stimulating an entirely new debate in Europe and Canada about whether to treat the United States as friend or foe.
From the Suez Crisis of the 1950s to the disagreements over Vietnam in the 1960s, nuclear strategies in the 1970s-1980s, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, NATO has weathered lots of intense internal storms. But these divisions pitted policies and strong personalities; they did not reflect disagreements on founding principles and values. During the Cold War, the overriding Soviet threat sublimated internal friction to the need for solidarity. After the Cold War, a new set of global challenges from nuclear terrorism to climate change demonstrated the benefits of continuing transatlantic cooperation and effective management of differences.
Today the Alliance is facing an unprecedented challenge from within. Trump has pointedly called into question America’s core alliance commitment. On his first visit to NATO, he refused to repeat its “Article 5” catechism that an attack on one is an attack on all. His abrupt cancellation of vital military-to-military exercises with the Republic of Korea on the grounds that they were too expensive sent an alarming signal to NATO members who depend for their security on the continuous planning, equipping and training that deter threats and ensure that treaty commitments are backed up with meaningful capabilities. His decision to walk away from bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, launch trade wars, and abandon the U.S.-led climate and Iran nuclear agreements has been followed up with punitive actions to enforce withdrawal.
No wonder there is high anxiety about this week’s NATO summit. Rather than focusing on how to meet myriad global challenges together, allied leaders have to worry about how to defend themselves from Trump’s attacks.
No one should be lulled into complacency that the Atlantic Alliance is so resilient and self-correcting that this phase will just blow over. Without a radical change of course, the Trump years could break the unique system of American global alliances, resulting in free agency that only benefits our rivals. In his “America First” mentality, Trump often characterizes treaty commitments as “gifts” that our partners have not sufficiently paid back. That gets the logic backward. NATO and related institutions are force-multipliers for American power; they have provided the U.S. with unparalleled advantage and generated international legitimacy for the exercise of its influence. Without these ties, we will be weaker and less effective in meeting the challenges of a highly disordered world.
To forestall such an outcome, Congress should exercise its power to convene hearings on the scale of the Vandenberg hearings in 1948-49 on the momentous decision to enter NATO. The purpose should be to explore the implications of, and alternatives to, Trump’s approach toward U.S. alliances in Europe (and Asia). These hearings should consider legislation to ensure that treaty commitments are upheld and other measures to stabilize and preserve relations with allies. In parallel, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly — to which legislators from all NATO countries belong — should revitalize efforts to maintain peer-to-peer dialogues.
Meanwhile, communities across the United States, Canada and Europe should pursue subnational cooperation. The most effective model to date is the climate leadership demonstrated by governors and mayors who are fulfilling the commitments made at Paris in late 2015. The American private sector, including major traditional electric utilities, also is voting with its dollars, committing to sustained investments in clean energy generation despite the Trump administration’s effort to keep the coal industry on life support and walk away from international arrangements to advance the clean energy future.
Citizens also play a growing role in our increasingly networked world. America’s population reflects many of the countries in the Atlantic Alliance, with family ties spanning continents and centuries. Our commercial enterprises are each other’s largest trading partners in aggregate. Our universities and laboratories are intimately intertwined in the pursuit of advancing knowledge and innovation. Our militaries stand sentry around the world and sacrifice together for our freedoms. Sustaining these interpersonal bridges will help unite us in a fractious time and enhance the prospects for recovery.
Although some believe Trump is executing a deliberate plan that ultimately will favor the United States on the global stage, the damage being done to America’s closest relationships, and thus its own interests, is undeniable. The question is whether this harm is reversible. If not, it will mean the death of a partnership that has defined and organized the international system to our collective advantage since World War II. As younger generations come of age who never knew the America that fought two hot wars and one Cold War to give Europe a future of freedom, allies could go their own way or forge new political, economic and military ties that upend the relationships through which the United States has successfully leveraged its power in the world. A future without this alliance will be a darker one for all.
Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She was President Obama’s principal adviser on Europe throughout his first term and later served as Deputy Secretary of Energy.