Politics

Why Trump Isn't Abandoning NATO Anytime Soon

What you need to know about the US's most important alliance.
April 11, 2017, 6:05pm
Photo of a NATO exercise in Estonia by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Donald Trump signaled he approved of adding Montenegro as a new member of NATO. It was an entirely anticipated move that didn't make much of a splash during a busy time—at the moment, the Trump administration is talking tough on both North Korea and Russia, and could also escalate US involvement in the Syrian Civil War. But the admission of Montenegro to the world's most powerful military alliance is still important. For one thing, it's opposed by Russia, who disapproves of NATO's expansion into the Balkans; for another, it shows that despite Trump's vaguely anti-NATO rhetoric during the campaign, he's yet to do anything to reject the 28-nation alliance that stretches from Canada to Turkey.

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But Trump's ascension has exposed some grievances American leaders have with US allies. During his time in office, Barack Obama criticized European countries for being "free riders"—not spending enough on their own militaries and relying on the US—and Trump has largely repeated that idea, though in his garbled and simplified version it's a matter of Germany owing the US. Meanwhile, in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel's electoral opponent has said he would stand against increased military spending, potentially complicating matters still further.

The average American doesn't think about NATO that much though, other than during the occasional military intervention where US forces are joined by those of other countries (the Balkans in the 90s, or Libya a few years ago). But as the world becomes a more uncertain place, the mutual defense pact NATO countries have with each other is bound to loom larger and disagreements among members are sure to matter quite a bit. In order to unpack the important issues surrounding the alliance, I spoke with Charles A. Kupchan, an expert in transatlantic relations at the Council on Foreign relations. Here's how that went:

VICE: My first question is very basic: Why do we have NATO in the first place, and what makes it a worthwhile institution?
Charles A. Kupchan: NATO was formed soon after the end of World War II to serve as a military alliance to protect the Western democracies against potential Soviet aggression. So it emerged in step with the ideological and geopolitical rivalry between East and West. And throughout the long years of the Cold War it was the main vehicle through which the United States and its allies prepared for the possibility of a Soviet invasion and took the military steps needed to deter that invasion—and, if necessary, to defend against it.

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When the Cold War came to an end, NATO then transformed itself into a broader vehicle for expanding stability in Europe by expanding eastward and integrating former members of the Warsaw Pact [the Soviet counterpart to NATO]. It also served as a general tool for organizing coalitions to engage in military action beyond NATO's borders. It also serves as a vehicle for what you might call softer missions, like education missions in the Middle East. NATO is now involved in training members of the Iraqi army as part of the counter-ISIS coalition, and it has been involved in the counter-migration mission in the Aegean, and is now looking to to do the same in the central Mediterranean to help mediate the flow from Libya to Italy.

To what extent does the US dominate the alliance?
The US has always been the leader of the alliance, and that stems in part from the reality that the US military is much stronger than the militaries of other NATO members. And that has meant that the supreme allied commander, the top military commander at NATO, has always been an American. On the other hand, the NATO secretary general has always been a non-American as a means of trying to balance between American and Europe.

Watch: How a viral video sparked protests in Russia 

During the campaign, Trump talked a lot about how other member nations of NATO have been not paying into the alliance like they should. Can you unpack that criticism a little bit? Is there any validity to it?
There's been a debate about burden-sharing that goes back to NATO's founding days. The United States, as a global superpower, has always spent more on defense as a share of GDP than its NATO allies. And the US has complained about that and said that its allies are free riding on its defense spending, and that they need to do more to defend their own security and shoulder their fair share of the tab.

Is that a criticism that's been leveled by Republicans and Democrats?
Yes, across the aisle. In fact President Obama was very concerned about this issue, and he's the one that led the charge at the Wales Summit in 2014 to convince all NATO members to commit over time to spend 2 percent or more of GDP on defense. Presently there are only five NATO members, including the United States, that meet that 2 percent target. There is a separate category of spending, called the common budget, and that is the allocation that is owed by each member state to joint infrastructure. There, all countries are paying their fair share—but that is a drop in the bucket compared to national defense budgets.

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If Trump's concerns mostly echoed Obama's, why did his criticism of NATO countries make headlines?
It was really the tone. The central concern was really no different than that of President Obama, but Trump said that he thinks that NATO is obsolete, and he said that whether or not the United States defends allies will depend on their readiness to spend what's required on their own defense. It was the threatening nature of that statement, as well as calling into question the value of NATO, that caused so much political consternation on both sides of the Atlantic. Article V—the clause that says an attack on one is an attack on all—is probably the single most important treaty obligation that the United States has. To have a president call that into question is to call into question the foundations of American strategy abroad.

What's the counterargument to Trump's assertion that NATO is obsolete?
Well, number one, that NATO has adapted itself in an impressive way. It has carried out military missions in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, and in the Mediterranean; it is involved in preventive security steps, such as training and advising partner countries; it enables the United States to share the burden with others by having an integrated military structure at the ready. And now that Russia has returned to a more ambitious and dangerous foreign policy, as demonstrated by its illegal annexation of Crimea and its invasion of eastern Ukraine, all of a sudden we're back in a world in which NATO is focussing on its traditional agenda of deterring and defending against Russia.

Speaking of Russia, what is that country's major concern about NATO expansion to places like the Balkans?
The debate about NATO enlargement, which took off in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union was falling apart, was very controversial. Some argued that it was important to expand NATO and extend a security guarantee to the Baltic countries, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and others that had been the target of Soviet oppression. This was a way of protecting them against a resurgent Russia, and also a way of locking in democratic reform. Then there were those who argued against that move because it would mean moving the world's most capable military alliance closer and closer to Russia's borders, which might threaten Russia and impinge upon its legitimate security interests. And that debate continues to this day. I would say that the Russians are justified in being concerned about NATO's eastward enlargement. Because even though NATO does not have aggressive ambitions, it nevertheless brings considerable military capability closer to Russia. And international politics is about perception as much as anything.

Does it seem so far like Trump is following through on any of his rhetoric about distancing himself from NATO, or has it been mostly talk?
No, he just sent Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to Europe, including to an important meeting called the Munich Security Conference, emphasizing the continuing importance of NATO and America's commitment to NATO. When [German] Chancellor Merkel was visiting, President Trump himself affirmed the importance of NATO. And so in that sense there has been a course correction since the beginning of the administration.

Here's a wild hypothetical: What would happen if the US actually left NATO?
The United States is the military backbone of NATO, and if the US left the Europeans would be hard pressed to carry out significant military missions on their own. That having been said, the European Union is attempting to acquire both the institutions and the capability to act on its own. And it does have some missions that it undertakes on its own. They tend to be more anti-migration missions, things that are at the lower end of the conflict spectrum. So in that sense, if the United States left NATO, it would raise very troubling questions about European stability and security, and also whether the US was ending its days as a team player. You know, heading down a path of not "America first" but "America only." And that would cause great uncertainty, both politically and militarily. Not just for NATO, but for all American allies.

But we are a very long way from that scenario.
A very long way.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.