2024 Donald Trump

NATO and Donald Trump: A Historic Alliance Meets An Even More Historic President

The Trump Presidency’s Effect on America and the World

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was granted a reprieve in the 2020 presidential election from what may have been a death sentence in the four years to come. If Donald Trump had been re-elected, he would have had the option of canceling the United States’ contribution to NATO’s mutual defense provision and withdrawing American forces from Europe, both of which had been proposed during his first term.

Looking back on my essay for the 2017 “America and the World” series[1], it seems that the essay accurately depicted the problems that would emerge as a result of Trump’s approach to allies and alliances. The title of the article refers to the uncontroversial claim that NATO is a “historic alliance,” as well as the now-well-documented claim that Donald Trump is a “a-historic president.” The research was based primarily on proof of Trump’s views expressed during the campaign leading up to his election and during his first few months in office.

Almost all recorded during that time period suggested what was observed during his term in office: his malignant narcissism, admiration for ‘strong’ leaders, beginning with Russian President Vladimir Putin; a limited understanding of history and diplomacy; a transactional approach to international relations; and the belief that NATO and European Union members were abusing their power.

Trump was described as a “new president” who “rejected past tradition, practices, and values,” according to the essay. His demeanor and success during his presidency backed up this assessment. It was exemplified when, despite obviously losing his re-election campaign, he declined to begin the transition to President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.

The essay then made another observation, which was later confirmed over the course of the next four years. It became clear that Trump’s narcissism was more critical than any political orientation or philosophy in understanding him. Trump had moved back and forth between the Republican and Democratic parties over the years, ostensibly depending on what he thought would be more beneficial to him at the moment. Following his election, he effectively seized control of the Republican Party and transformed it into the Trump Party, abandoning large swaths of conventional Republican policies and interests, most notably U.S. leadership of the West and NATO support.

Trump’s approach to NATO during his presidency ran contrary to the conventional positions of the presidency and Congress that had existed since the alliance’s founding in 1949. The Congress has often protested about burden-sharing over the years, although both party administrations have defended the Alliance. As mentioned in the essay.

While both Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States tried to find ways to reduce the financial pressures and persuade the Europeans to cover some of NATO’s expenses, the existing trend continued into the post-Cold War years. Over the years, Congress has done the majority of the whining, while presidents of both parties have encouraged allies to do more while generally defending the alliance and its costs as important for U.S. national interests.

Despite the fact that Trump changed the presidency’s usual position toward distrust of NATO, he did show some consistency in the United States’ concern regarding burden-sharing. And President Barack Obama’s rather Atlanticist administration needed the Europeans to shoulder more of the alliance’s security burdens. In reality, on his way out of office, Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, cautioned that if European allies did not significantly increase their contributions to the alliance, the US commitment to NATO could be eroded. [two] You may argue that Gates foresaw Trump’s rise. And Trump did not disappoint in this regard.

Early in the 2016 campaign, Trump’s destructive approach toward NATO was predicted. Trump said in March 2016 that NATO had become “obsolete” because it did not focus on terrorism’s risks. Trump went on to say that NATO not only doesn’t “protect terrorism like it’s supposed to,” but it also doesn’t involve the countries that are most important in combating ISIS and terrorism in general. “When he said NATO didn’t have the “right” countries to make it successful in fighting terrorism, he probably meant Russia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and maybe a few more non-NATO countries,” the essay hypothesized.

According to the essay, when NATO announced the creation of the position of “…Assistant Secretary General for Intelligence, intended to improve coordination of intelligence assessment on Russia, the Middle East, and terrorism” in June 2016, Trump said that the move was in response to his complaints, while a NATO official confirmed the alliance had been considering creating the position. 

However, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg did not directly contradict Trump, establishing a trend of letting Trump take credit for positive NATO-related changes, even though their roots were more complicated than a knee-jerk reaction to Trump’s complaints.

In fact, Stoltenberg’s performance during Trump’s presidency was perhaps the most notable institutional success for NATO. Trump conveniently overlooked the fact that the NATO agreement to increase defense budgets to 2% of GDP was first decided upon at the NATO summit in Wales in 2014, when Obama was president. The target was intended as a response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region. After Trump was elected, the allies continued their erratic progress toward the target, but Stoltenberg constantly credited Trump’s burden-sharing pressure for whatever results could be demonstrated.

And Trump devoured it. “Our NATO allies, for example, were so far behind in their defense payments, but at my strong urging, they decided to pay $130 billion more a year…” Trump boasted during his speech to the 2020 Republican nominating convention. Stoltenberg was “amazed,” he said, “after watching for so many years and saying that President Trump did what no one else could.” [number six] Stoltenberg’s primary achievement as Secretary General of NATO could be managing Trump’s relationship with the alliance.

Trump’s approach to NATO was a key component of his “America First” strategy, which came the closest to describing American foreign policy during his presidency. “The countries we are protecting must pay for this protection, and if they don’t, the US must be prepared to let these countries protect themselves,” Trump said in an April 2016 major foreign policy speech to the Center for the National Interest[7], in which he set out his “American First” theme. We have no other option.”

Trump’s warning called into question the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty’s central Article 5 pledge that allies must regard an assault on any ally as an attack on themselves. Despite the fact that the treaty left open what allies would do in the event of an attack, the alliance’s determination remained vital. “No US government, Republican or Democratic, has ever called NATO’s mutual defense commitment into question,” I wrote in my essay. Despite the fact that Trump did not carry out his bombshell Article 5 attack, those who were paying attention were concerned that if he won a second term, he would do so and break the alliance.

Trump avoided direct attacks on the collective defense commitment after taking office in 2017, ostensibly influenced by Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s experience, but he continued to show his ahistoric and generally uninformed approach to the defense spending issue. His main goals were Germany and its chief, Chancellor Angela Merkel. Following the President’s first meeting with Merkel, Trump told a joint press conference that he fully supported NATO, but that “many nations owe large amounts of money from previous years, and it is really unfair to the United States.” These countries must settle their debts.

The essay clarified that the main national “contributions” to NATO were the military budgets they accepted and the forces they deployed, and that the idea of allies owing “past dues” is entirely inconsistent with the North Atlantic Treaty’s terms and the allies’ experience over the last 70 years. “… Germany owes huge amounts of money to NATO & the United States must be paying more for the strong, and very costly, protection it provides to Germany!” Trump continued after Merkel returned to Berlin.

Trump continued to criticize Germany and Merkel until the end of his presidency. In some respects, Trump’s animosity toward Merkel seemed personal, maybe indicating his well-documented aversion to powerful women. He eventually used a big tool against this ally in 2020, which he considered to be delinquent in paying its “NATO dues.” Trump announced numerous troop deployment reductions in the run-up to the November elections, including the evacuation of 12,000 US soldiers from their postings in Germany.

Another recurring theme during Trump’s first months in office, and which persisted until the end of his one-term presidency, is his unexplained permissive and welcoming stance toward Russian President Vladimir Putin. One of the essay’s most critical paragraphs dealt with the Putin connection:

Trump’s stance on NATO is inextricably linked to his peculiar viewpoint on Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Trump has steered clear of criticizing Russia or President Putin. This, along with ongoing inquiries into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia’s covert attempts to sway the results of the US elections in Trump’s favor, has cast a pall over Trump’s approach to NATO. How can allies have faith in an American president who seems to be conflicted on one of the most serious challenges to many NATO countries, as well as Western interests and values in general?

Trump’s permissive stance toward Putin continues to raise serious questions today. Concerns about the effect of Trump’s attitude on American and Western interests peaked in July 2018, when Trump ignored the opinions of the American intelligence community in favor of Putin’s “reassurances” that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 American elections during a meeting in Helsinki, Finland. (12) At that point, the question raised in my 2017 article morphed into a full-fledged national security concern. The investigation into Trump’s campaign’s ties to Russia has remained a “hoax,” according to Trump. But nothing he’s done has allayed the fears of those who aren’t part of his inner circle. And during his presidency, he declined to say something negative about Putin or Russia.

The good news is that a vast majority of Americans (and Europeans) believe the transatlantic alliance remains in their country’s interest, as noted in this article, which eschewed more dramatic conclusions that I and others later put forward during the remainder of Trump’s presidency.

Between the time this essay was written and the 2020 election, the risks posed by Trump’s approach to NATO and US national interests in general have become abundantly clear. The dangers were highlighted when Trump declined to recognize the results of the November election, inciting a violent mob of supporters to strike the Capitol on January 6, 2021, when Congress was assembled to offer its blessing to the Electoral College result certifying Joe Biden as president. The ability of the nation to repair the alliance’s harm and regain respect for and confidence in the United States as its leading member will be a crucial challenge facing the new administration.

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