What does Trump’s victory mean for NATO?

Posted on November 10, 2016


The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America casts a shadow of uncertainty over the future of the NATO alliance. His boisterous claims that some NATO allies should pay up in order to enjoy America’s protection make for uncomfortable reading today in many European capitals. Unless rebuked, they could strike a serious blow to the efficacy of the legally-binding Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Now more than ever, European member states are under pressure to prove that they are committed allies.



Photograph by Michael Vadon

While running for president, Donald Trump directed a series of negative, if uninformed, statements at NATO and its relevance in the modern world. At the time, such criticisms would have hardly shaken NATO officials and allies, including when he claimed that, once elected, he would only resolve to defend NATO’s Baltic Member States if he felt that they actually “fulfil their obligations to [the U.S.]”. At the time, his victory still seemed a remote possibility at best, and while his threat to some of NATO’s smallest defence spenders is unprecedented, most observers would have dismissed it as just another one of Trump’s flamboyant outings. Today, however, the Trump presidency has become an unexpected reality and has the potential to deeply undermine NATO and the post-Cold War international order with it.

Of course, what Trump referred to as ‘obligations’ to the U.S. was the non-binding commitment by NATO Member States to spend at least 2% of national GDP on the defence and security sectors. President Barack Obama had also criticised those allies that he claimed were ‘free riding’, or not spending their fair share on defence as NATO members. He specifically lamented the relatively meagre contribution by European members to NATO’s total defence expenditure, despite them relying on a combined GDP greater than that of the U.S.

Trump seemed unaware in July that the 2% threshold is not legally binding, while Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty most definitely is – irrespectively of the military budgets of those allies that invoke it. Common sense would suggest that President Trump will significantly tone down many of the bombastic claims that characterised his presidential campaign. However, Tuesday’s elections showed quite clearly that common sense only plays a minor role in Trump’s stunning ascent to power.

The possible appointment of Newt Gingrich as Secretary of State will also be cause for concern in terms of the continued credibility of Article 5. Indeed, Gingrich claimed in July that he was not sure that he would provoke a “nuclear war over some place [that] is the suburbs of St. Petersburg”. Therefore, unless Donald Trump officially rebukes his claims that he would consider abiding by Article 5 on an ad-hoc basis (depending on his opinion of this or the other NATO ally), the alliance’s credibility is largely at stake.

Reluctance by the new administration to officially declare total and unconditional commitment to NATO might eventually boil down to serious trust issues within the alliance itself: can the U.S. trust its NATO allies to commit more credibly to their own security? Can underspending allies trust the U.S. to come to their aid in Article 5 scenarios, even if they eventually meet the 2% guideline?

Trump’s rhetoric, if it were to carry on to his presidency, threatens to severely undermine NATO as a compact block of states with shared security interests. We will have to wait until 2017 and the next NATO Summit in Belgium to have a clearer idea on how exactly Trump’s United States of America will fit into this alliance. Meanwhile, it is in the interest of all NATO countries to avoid further cuts on defence spending and to continue on the current path of slowly increasing budgets. This is essential if they are to sit at the table with the new American President not as equals, but as committed allies at the very least.

I am not at all arguing that some NATO countries are not worthy allies. Rather, I argue that, because the U.S. has a disproportionately high amount of leverage within the alliance (thanks to its extraordinarily large defence budget), it is its allies that need to prove their commitment. Therefore, it will be up to underspending members and Jens Stoltenberg to convince the Trump administration that NATO is an advantageous deal for America, despite the uneven financial burden-sharing. This might prove challenging, given Trump’s apparent inability so far to see NATO as something more than just an expensive favour to European allies. 


Posted in: America, Europe, News, Opinion