Can NATO survive two more years of Donald Trump?

Can NATO survive two more years of Donald Trump?
© Greg Nash

As Donald Trump approaches the second anniversary of his inauguration as the 45th U.S. President, new questions have emerged about his commitment to the Atlantic Alliance. The New York Times reported on January 14 that over the past two years, Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw the United States from NATO, reflecting his long-held view that NATO is not only “obsolete” but imposes an excessive burden on US taxpayers. 

Trump has frequently raised doubts whether, under his leadership, the United States would honor its commitment under Article 5 of the 1949 Washington Treaty to come to the defense of an ally under attack, wondering aloud why the United States should be drawn into World War III for the sake of “freeloading” allies. Only the intervention of the “adults in the room” — led by former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis — reportedly convinced the President not to yield to his “instinct” to withdraw from NATO and tell the Europeans to take care of their own security. 

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Trump’s low regard for NATO has been publicly manifest in his incessant comments castigating Allies for failing to meet their obligation to spend two percent of GDP on defense (which conveniently omit the fact that allies pledged only to meet that target by 2024). In the tumultuous final session of last July’s NATO Summit in Brussels, Trump reportedly said the United States might have to “do its own thing” — a thinly veiled threat to pull out of the 1949 Washington Treaty — if Allies did not meet, or preferably exceed, the two-percent goal. One can only imagine the smile on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s face when he read the news from Brussels and welcomed the President a few days later in Helsinki.

The Trump Administration’s policy on NATO has presented a paradox. Despite the President’s skepticism about the Alliance and contempt for most Allied leaders, his Administration has carried out policies which have significantly strengthened NATO militarily and secured a net improvement in burden-sharing by the European Allies and Canada.

The Trump Administration stood by the Obama Administration’s commitments to lead the NATO multinational battalion in Poland, it has actually increased the US military footprint across Europe and it has boosted funding for the European Deterrence Initiative by more than three billion dollars in FY17 and 18. At the July Summit, the U.S. convinced the allies to support U.S. initiatives to raise the readiness of Allied troops even further, which will significantly reduce the time it takes for Allied reinforcements to arrive in case of aggression in the vulnerable Baltic Sea region.

Allies agreed to bolster NATO’s command structure to handle cyber operations and high-intensity warfare. Washington also persuaded Allies to use NATO more effectively to fight terrorism and instability on NATO’s southern periphery, including a new training mission in Iraq, reconnaissance support for the anti-ISIS coalition, and a new “hub” for Southern missions at NATO’s Joint Forces Command in Naples.

Moreover, the United States isn’t shouldering an outsized share of the burden for these new initiatives. The UK, Germany and Canada are leading the NATO deterrence battalions in the three Baltic States, with more than a dozen other allies pitching in. Allies will provide the lion’s share of the 30 ground battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 warships that will be ready to deploy in 30 days or less.

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Germany will provide one of the linchpins of the new command structure, a logistics command that will ensure the rapid movement and integration of forces across Europe in the event any ally comes under threat. Canada has agreed to head the NATO training mission in Iraq, Italy is hosting NATO’s new fleet of reconnaissance drones, while the UK continues to lead NATO’s vital Maritime Command that controls forces from the High North to the Black Sea. Lithuania, Poland and other allies are providing critical training and equipment to Ukraine and Georgia to help them preserve their independence. 

Underpinning all this is progress by most Allies in meeting the two-percent-of-GDP spending target: eight hit the target last year, and the majority will reach two percent by 2024. Already, Allies have spent an additional $41 billion since Trump took office in 2017 and are projected to spend an additional $266 billion by 2024.

Despite President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE’s antipathy for the European Union, the EU has, for the first time, agreed to take concrete steps to raise NATO’s readiness by improving military mobility across European borders. This will include European Commission-funded infrastructure projects, as well as initiatives to eliminate legal and procedural bottlenecks that could delay critical reinforcements. At the same time, the EU is providing seed money for multinational procurement projects that will deliver improved capabilities for both NATO and EU operations.

All of this has made NATO stronger, more agile, and more engaged than at any time since the end of the Cold War. U.S. leadership has helped NATO rise to the challenge posed by an aggressive Russia and to adopt reforms that will keep it relevant for years to come. Yes, there’s a lot of work still to be done to implement the decisions of last year’s summit and make the Alliance an even more balanced partnership. But the President should take a well-deserved victory lap rather than threatening to withdraw from an Alliance that has been the foundation of U.S. and transatlantic security for the past seventy years. Let’s hope he can figure this out without the help of the adults in the room.

Alexander Vershbow is a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC. He was previously NATO Deputy Secretary General, US Assistant Secretary of Defense, and U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Russia and the Republic of Korea.