Trump’s reversal on NATO: Too little, too late?

Despite Donald Trump’s declaration of support for NATO on Monday, further tensions between the U.S. and alliance members are likely, writes Michael Petrou.

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September 27, 2016
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during the first presidential debate between Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (not shown) at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s new-found faith in NATO is unlikely to reassure America’s partners in the organization.

In the first presidential debate Monday night with his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, Trump declared he was “all for NATO” because, he said, its members had listened to his earlier criticism and were now focused on fighting terrorism. 

This marked a stark reversal from Trump’s recent derision of the organization. In March, Trump described NATO as obsolete. This summer, he implied the United States wouldn’t come to the aid of members that didn’t “fulfill their obligations to us” by contributing their share to the alliance’s collective defence.

“We’re protecting countries that most people in this room have never heard of and we’ll end up in world war three… Give me a break,” he told a rally in July.

Heading into the debate on Monday, a NATO official, speaking on background during a meeting with journalists in Brussels, suggested concerns about Trump are too deep-seated to be alleviated by his most recent change in tone.

“If Mr. Trump is elected, all bets are off—for everyone, on everything,” he said.   

The official was making the case for what he described as a high degree of unity among NATO member states regarding the need to confront threats from Russia, but suggested that solidarity could weaken under a Trump presidency.

Trump has previously expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and has said he’d look into lifting sanctions that the U.S. and other Western nations imposed on Russia following Moscow’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we actually got along with Russia?” Trump asked supporters at a campaign rally this summer.

These words, and Trump’s suggestion that U.S. protection might depend on how much its allies spend on defence, especially worried NATO member states in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

One Eastern European diplomat from a NATO member state described Trump’s outlook to its allies as a “contractual approach … whether there is something in it for me or not.” 

“Of course, many countries can do this,” the diplomat, who asked not to be named, added in a recent interview. “But the United States’ approach traditionally was somehow beyond this.”

Such fears are not baseless, said Jeffrey Mankoff, senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Their entire security and national independence is based on the credibility of NATO security guarantees,” he said, speaking of Eastern European and Baltic members of the alliance. “If those guarantees lose their credibility, they’re the ones on the front lines.” 

Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, described Trump’s “waning commitments” to NATO as “a wholesale change of the basic parameters of U.S. foreign policy.” 

Trump’s attempt to step back from his earlier hostility toward NATO were likely driven by a desire to appear more moderate to undecided voters. But he might have hamstrung himself by claiming credit for NATO’s supposedly new focus on terrorism.

NATO has in fact been active in Afghanistan for over a decade and has more recently begun training Iraqi security forces to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used by ISIS and other jihadist groups. These efforts predate Trump’s salvos against NATO this summer. 

But even as he raised an alarm about the prospect of Trump becoming president, the NATO official acknowledged further tensions between the U.S. and other members of NATO may be inevitable.

Most NATO members, including Canada, do not meet the alliance’s stated goal of spending two percent of their GDP on defence. The U.S. spends more than 3.5 percent of its GDP on defence and outspends all other members of the alliance combined. This is a point of aggravation for Democrats and Republicans. 

“If there is going to be friction between the United States and its allies, it’s going to be defence spending,” the official said, “whichever candidate is elected.”