When Donald Trump assumes the office of the US presidency later this month, his powers as an administrator and convener will never be so tested as the leader of the free world. This is particularly true of foreign policy, where on the campaign trail Trump relished bucking bipartisan international relations orthodoxy. However, having now won the presidency, Trump’s quixotic foreign policy musings may be found ill-suited for the task of navigating an increasingly uncertain international environment, in which US power has been buffeted by relative decline and the rise of an assortment of potent state and non-state challengers to US interests.
Perhaps the most pressing matter will be managing US leadership in Europe, whose period of relative peace and prosperity in the post-1945 era – underwritten by US power – has underpinned the US’ international security and economic agenda for generations. Central to that endeavour is the health and maintenance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has functioned as a Euro-Atlantic guardian throughout the postwar period -- and faces both crisis and indispensability in this age of uncertainty.
Trump’s heterodox views of what is arguably the most successful alliance in history has made most of the headlines, and rightfully so. His characterization of US obligations to Nato as somehow contingent on the “right” amount of spending by other alliance members is not well-attuned to the purpose and origins of the alliance. Of course, Trump is not the first to express frustration with lopsided contributions to defence within the alliance; current Defence Secretary Ashton Carter – and former secretaries Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and Chuck Hagel – have all issued pleas to European allies to assume a greater share of continental defence, often to deaf ears. In some ways, Trump’s rhetoric, though wielding coarser terminology, might be regarded as a nationalism-infused extrapolation of these more genteel urgings from the current and past administrations.
However, Trump appears to have little sense of Nato’s history or purpose. As an ordinary citizen, he might be forgiven for his ignorance of the US’ most critical alliance, but as the future occupant of the highest office in the land, his misunderstanding of (and casual disdain for) Nato’s background is a matter of national security. Nato’s formation and development, contrary to some characterizations, is not some freebie subsidy lavished on decadent Europeans, but the result of painstaking and interests-based deliberations.
Securing democratic space
In truth, Nato was formed not merely as a military bulwark against an aggressive Russia (in its previous Soviet incarnation), but as part of a positive agenda to secure and expand a liberal, democratic space. In more practical terms, the Marshall Plan in 1948 and the formation of Nato in 1949 were two sides of the same coin, in which the US committed itself to Europe’s development and well-being – to stave off Soviet domination, yes, but more broadly to break the cycle of carnage and militarism that had drawn the world into two ruinous wars. It was, as pithily described by British General Hastings Ismay, “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
Hundreds of thousands of Americans had laid down their lives in the early 20th century – fighting German militarism first and global fascism second – in defence of fundamental values, but also fundamental US interests. Nato’s formation mid-century was Washington’s commitment to ensure such destruction would not happen again, and the result has been an extended Euro-Atlantic vacation from history, in which wars became rare, prosperity flourished, and liberty was on the ascendant.
The urgency of that mission has not diminished since the end of the Cold War. The unprecedented period of prosperity and unity since the formation of Nato is no historical quirk, but the product of sustained US engagement and presence on the continent. Today, Europe’s continued peace and success is a central pillar of US foreign policy and national security. The EU is the US’ largest trading partner and, when combined with fellow Nato member Canada (our single largest trading partner), accounts for almost a third of total US’ international trade. Most of Washington’s closest intelligence and security partners are in Europe. And while Europe’s sometimes-maligned reputation for pacifism may complicate some US-led foreign policy efforts, but it has also kept young American servicemen and women out of the internecine European wars that were once common before Nato’s founding.
Successive US defence secretaries, even at the height of their frustration with gun-shy European functionaries, know it is far preferable for the American taxpayers to foot the bill for the relatively modest expense of securing European peace than a return to the conflict-prone, Hobbesian Europe of yesteryear. Conflating of the Atlantic Alliance as a variety of protection racket, even as part of some kind of negotiation tactic, not only undermines US credibility and stature, but also weakens a bedrock element of US national security.
Embrace and bolster
Instead of attacking it, a President Trump should embrace Nato. On balance, Nato is actually a very good deal for the US in maintaining a system favourable to our security and prosperity. It is not perfect, and is certainly ripe for some reforms, but it is as much an instrument of American interests as a bulwark for the continent. Behind the scenes, our Nato allies provide invaluable support, intelligence and input that makes US foreign policy stronger and more effective. Jettisoning this enormous capability would save little money, and would likely only push Europe back into cycles of insecurity and conflict.
In truth, a President Trump, realistically faced with low expectations abroad, could quickly win significant goodwill and political capital simply by agreeing to adhere to US obligations in Nato and wider Europe. It might limit some of his plans for a new détente with Russia, but Europe is and will remain the far more worthy prize for US partnership compared to Moscow. For the US’ new CEO-in-chief, that ought to be considered a tantalizing return on investment.
However, while President-elect Trump would be wise to embrace Nato, that need not translate into outright hawkishness, as some of his GOP colleagues have advised. In many respects, direct US pushback could make matters worse in Europe, and not necessarily better. Many of the Obama administration’s most ardent critics in the Washington foreign policy establishment, for example, regard the current posture towards Russia as unsuitably anaemic, and have called for a much more robust US and Allied military presence in exposed Nato countries like Poland, the Baltic states, and in the Black Sea – well above and beyond the Nato rotational forces currently being established. While the ideas do have some merit, given the magnitude of the potential threat posed by Russian forces on Nato’s Eastern Flank, it is likely that even a more robust US or Nato presence would still be vulnerable to Russian forces, and perhaps even an operational liability in the event of an actual conflict.
More broadly, a more aggressive US approach to the Eastern Flank might also inadvertently expose other US partner states to Russian strategic machinations. Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova – Nato hopefuls each contending with varying levels of Russian occupations over segments of their internationally-recognized territory – could be the targets of new Russian belligerence as a means of probing US commitments.
That is not to say that the next administration should throw up its hands at Russian militarism. Yet, instead of directly responding to Russian escalations with our own, it might be worth taking a page from Moscow’s playbook and pursue a suite of asymmetric counters to spoil Russian efforts. Just as Moscow sought to expand its footprint in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean to offset Western responses to Ukraine mounted, the US and Nato might face down Russian buildups in Kaliningrad not with its own buildups across the border, but, for example, with something like a diplomatic offensive in Belarus, or a more robust and resourced Arctic policy.
Like many foreign policy professionals, I did not vote for President-elect Trump. But getting Europe and Nato right is simply too important for the new administration to get wrong. Nato continues to be a cornerstone of US national security, and the next US president will need to understand both its centrality to US interests as well as its inherent limitations.
Michael Cecire is an International Security Fellow at New America and a non-resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.