The Future of the Alliance in a post-Trump World

By Lauren Cardinal, M.A., Queen’s School of Policy Studies  

NATO has not had an easy few years. Russian aggression in the Ukraine and the Baltics, crises on its southern borders, terror attacks in Western Europe and now the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States calls for a review of the organization. NATO’s business-as-usual approach just will not cut it anymore as people argue over whether the Alliance continues to be relevant.

Now the Alliance faces a new and novel threat: an American President-elect who has made remarks of NATO as “obsolete” and threatens to remove security guarantees unless members foot their share of the bill. The funding, or lack thereof, from members and the free-rider problem has been an issue in American politics for awhile. In 2015, the US contributed 72% of NATO’s funding, with President Obama complaining that “free riders aggravate me,” but never before has a politician been this blunt.        

Building on Mr. Trump’s remarks about NATO, the President-elect’s blossoming friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump’s remarks about aligning with Syrian President Assad in the country’s civil war, are cause for concern. The press spokesman for President Putin claimed that he and Donald Trump shared views that were “phenomenally close.” The two have agreed that relations between their countries will be based on “equality, mutual respect and non-interference in the other’s internal affairs.”

On November 30, Putin asserted that Mr. Trump had agreed with him that bilateral relations “undoubtedly must be straightened out.” He further claimed that the degradation in relations was not Russia’s fault. Putin’s view on migration and his nationalist views have taken hold in Europe as leaders struggle to respond to the refugee crisis and the battle against extremism. Along with the prospect of the European Union becoming more protectionist due to Britain voting to leave the union, NATO and the European continent face internal struggles in the next couple years with the role of both organizations brought into question.

If this is the case, NATO and Europe have justification for their worries. Putin has never been in favour of NATO expansion following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, since it was seen as NATO encroaching on Russia’s backyard. Putin has also has warned against foreign intervention in the Ukraine. The reference to non-interference in the other’s internal affairs points directly to agreement that President-elect Trump will not meddle in Russia’s affairs in Eastern Europe and Syria once he takes office. Russia is pursuing an aggressive expansionist foreign policy in Eastern Europe and is making no effort to hide its grand strategy with its integrated defence posture and its increases in conventional and nuclear capabilities.

However, on November 29, Mr. Trump agreed with the British Prime Minister Theresa May about the importance of NATO. It appears that in PM May, Trump has a found an ally in his call for countries to increase their spending to meet the 2 percent spending requirement of NATO.

Trump’s continuous questioning the relevance of NATO and America’s commitment to Europe is unfortunate with the rise of China’s primacy in Asia and Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. At the 2016 Warsaw Conference, NATO committed to sending forward-deployed troops to Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland as “tripwire” forces against Russia to ease Eastern European members’ concerns. But, the US is leading the deployment in Poland and it is correct to question what will happen with the deployment following Trump’s comments.

Mr. Trump’s “vague and sometimes contradictory” statements regarding his isolationist foreign policy means that the international community does not really know what the United States will do after a post-Trump victory. A senior NATO official remarked that “because his position keeps shifting” they cannot readily prepare for Trump’s policies. Even before assuming the office, Mr. Trump has made moves that are not from the American playbook, such as speaking with the Taiwanese President and Pakistani Prime Minister.

Although it will be difficult and will not happen overnight, there are small but significant modifications the Alliance can make to bolster deterrence and credibility. It is time for members in NATO to uphold their end of the bargain for funding of the Alliance. Or, it is time for the Alliance to change the funding requirement to include qualitative assessments of a country’s contributions to quiet complaints about any free-rider behaviour. NATO members can also contribute other aspects of their defenses which are not earmarked for the Alliance. This will assure Americans of the European commitment to the Alliance. Europe should then pressure Mr. Trump’s future administration to commit the US to Article V and other security guarantees.

NATO will need to continue to develop its speed decision-making policy to ensure appropriate response time to hybrid threats and continue to pursue closer cooperation with the European Union. Also, the Alliance must clearly articulate policies regarding conventional and nuclear deterrence, and on subtle threats that attempt to intimidate members, such as Russia’s hybrid warfare tactics.

The business-as-usual approach will no longer work moving forward. The bureaucracy of NATO and the necessity of consensus further demonstrate the lack of cohesion in the Alliance. The distinction between collective defence and crisis management will become increasingly blurred as the Alliance responds to crises in Europe and the Middle East, with the refugee crisis, civil wars, and resurgence of nationalist tendencies. It is imperative that NATO adopts new policies that clearly articulates deterrence, protection, and commitment of the Alliance members.

NATO Grunge Flag” by Nicolas Raymond is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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