There are three key reasons the president showed little affinity for an alliance central to U.S. national security policy for nearly seven decades. First, Trump thinks that the United States pays too much to ensure the security of rich countries that should do more for themselves. Second, he thinks the alliance should concentrate less on Russia and more on the issue he cares about — fighting the Islamic State. Third, the alliance’s founding treaty highlights shared values of democracy and the rule of law that are not key features of Trump’s foreign policy approach, which he described in his speech in Riyadh as “principled realism” (with an emphasis to date on the “realism.”)
European leaders can provide (short) presentations that address the first two perceptions in ways that will please the president and enable him to claim he has effected great change in NATO. It will be a much greater challenge for those European leaders who want to convince Trump that the alliance has value beyond pure security interests.
U.S. leaders have long complained that NATO allies aren’t pulling their weight
The most consistent Trump complaint about NATO is that not enough countries are doing their fair share. This is not a new complaint from U.S. leaders.
In his farewell remarks, former secretary of defense Robert Gates warned of a “two-tiered alliance” of those who were bearing the risks and costs and those who were not. Only four member states other than the United States — Estonia, Greece, Poland and the United Kingdom — meet the defense spending commitment of 2 percent of gross domestic product agreed upon by alliance defense ministers in 2006.
Trump’s irritation about how few alliance partners hit the 2 percent mark is compounded by his misunderstanding of how the alliance works. There were conflicting reports about whether the president handed German Chancellor Angela Merkel an actual bill for money owed the United States when they met in March or simply commented that Germany owed the United States significant sums for failing to meet the 2 percent threshold.
Regardless, NATO defense expenditures are not payments made by countries to the United States as a form of “protection money,” to secure a U.S. commitment to defend those that pay up. The 2 percent mark is a target for countries to spend on their own defense as part of the greater good of the alliance.
As my American University colleagues Garret Martin and Balazs Martonffy have recently argued, focusing on the 2 percent target diverts attention from other capabilities that countries can bring to bear to support NATO’s many objectives. They suggest that NATO countries be graded on their contributions in each of the three areas outlined in the current Strategic Concept: collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security.
For this week’s meeting, expect to see NATO leaders declare their preexisting commitments to greater spending over the coming years in a way that Trump can feel that he is responsible for their newfound resolve and thereby give him an easy win.
NATO’s mission has shifted to include confronting terrorism — even before Trump
NATO’s original mission in 1949 was to unite Western Europe in an alliance against the Soviet Union. Article 5 of its charter states that an attack on any member of the alliance is considered an attack on all.
Trump has made clear that his priority is defeating the Islamic State, not defending against Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. When he said in April that NATO was no longer obsolete, he explicitly referred to what he claimed was NATO’s decision at his urging to focus on terrorism. During his stop in Brussels, Trump will be listening for Europeans to talk about paying more and focusing on terrorism.
But NATO’s mission had been evolving long before Trump was elected. Counterterrorism has been a feature of alliance activity since September 11, 2001, when the allies set up Operation Active Endeavor as a counterterrorism operation in the Mediterranean. Allies understood the need to keep NATO relevant after the Cold War ended but that need took on new urgency as time went on.
At the same time, confronting a resurgent Russia remains an important part of NATO’s mission. Trump’s European counterparts (especially those in the East) will be listening for his reaffirmation of Article 5.
NATO members will thus be clear that the alliance is there both to protect against Russia and to combat the range of threats to the security of the member states. NATO leaders may announce measures to combat terrorism at their meeting in Brussels — and such a move would enable Trump to claim that he has redirected the alliance in ways that make it relevant to common threats.
It’s not likely that Trump and the Europeans will find common ground on shared values
Where Trump and his European counterparts are less likely to agree is on what NATO stands for beyond combating terrorism, or possibly also confronting Russia.
The North Atlantic Treaty establishing NATO mentions the principles of “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” But Trump has exhibited reluctance to give these values a central role in his foreign policy, at least to date.
There are also tensions within NATO on this score. We can expect leaders such as France’s newly elected and pro-European President Emmanuel Macron, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to make strong statements in support of shared values.
But leaders of other NATO member states, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, have become decidedly anti-democratic. In Erdogan’s case, this was on full display on his recent visit to Washington, when his bodyguards viciously beat up protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence.
These differences within the alliance and between NATO and the Trump administration make it more likely that NATO’s role will become more ad hoc — the United States will turn to NATO when it finds it useful, but will not see it as it has traditionally: the primary partner with which it shares fundamental values.
If the United States under Trump becomes purely transactional, then ad hoc coalitions of the willing will become increasingly more important, and NATO less, in the making of U.S. foreign policy. That trend started after 9/11 with President George W. Bush’s decision not to conduct the war in Afghanistan as an Article 5 mission and continued with President Barack Obama’s approach to combating the Islamic State. Combine that trend with Trump’s transactional approach, and NATO may indeed be threatened with obsolescence — or at the very least increasing irrelevance — in the coming years.
James Goldgeier is dean of the School of International Service at American University and author of a 2010 Council on Foreign Relations Special Report on The Future of NATO.