Does the Next US President Hold the Keys to NATO’s Future?

Republican candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Photo by Matthew Trudeau (public domain).  


With exercises in the Republic of Georgia, and Montenegro ascending to NATO membership last week, the NATO alliance is making a strong showing in the international arena ahead of its July summit in Warsaw. Tacitly on the minds of every state official attending, the summit will be how Barack Obama’s successor will approach European security when they take the helm in 2017.

Typically, there is not much for analysts to write about when it comes to NATO’s future under US presidents, both Republican and Democrat. Every president since the end of the cold war has: governed on the premise of the necessity of European security, expanded the alliance’s membership, and flexed its muscles in the face of security threats to the south and east. However, the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, leaving no stone unturned when it comes to US policy positions, has called the alliance “obsolete,” hinting at a rethinking of US NATO policy in his potential administration and its America First policy. Thanks to this outlier of an election, we can look at what the two parties’ presumptive nominees would do with European security and NATO, and how the big talk of a campaign does not necessarily translate into action when a new administration takes office.

Hillary Clinton’s Status Quo

A vote for Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee for the Democrats in November, would undoubtedly be a vote for NATO’s status quo. Clinton was the champion of NATO’s Libya intervention during her tenure as Secretary of State in 2011. One can also find any number of her soundbites about the alliance’s importance in the contemporary security dynamic. If anything, a Clinton administration would likely try to use NATO more than its predecessors. This would allow her “semi-hawkish” agenda the ability to conduct three-month interventions in the Middle East or North Africa if needed without the premise of it being a purely US operation.

Clinton’s NATO policy is born from the bureaucracy, and her approach to the alliance is generally reflective of the establishment – expanding regularly, passively combating Russian aggression through support of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova (GUAM), and rapid coalition building to respond to threats in the Middle East or North Africa – all of which Secretary Clinton has previously supported. To know where Clinton stands on NATO, just Google search the alliance’s recent history.

Bernie Sanders’ Ambivalence

The Left’s anti-establishment candidate, Bernie Sanders has focused most of his attention on domestic policy. He has, however, engaged with Hillary Clinton in debates about her hawkish foreign policy and how he would do things differently. Looking at his voting record, Sanders has been much more skeptical of the projection of American and NATO power in the last two decades. He is also one of the few US lawmakers to oppose NATO expansion, saying it unnecessarily provokes Russia.

The problem with Sanders’ interpretation of NATO is that it projects an American reality onto European security, misunderstanding that the two realities can be very different. Part of the reason why Europe has rebuilt from conflict so quickly and prospered is because of NATO’s security blanket. It is true that the US pays the lion’s share of NATO (NATO funding is proportional and based on gross national income, so the richest country as a result pays more than others), and that makes tax-and-spend liberals jealous. To undo this reality, however, would fly in the face of decades of entrenched fiscal and security policies of several nations and is well beyond the reach of even the leader of the free world.

The leftist skepticism of NATO is highly unlikely to become US policy since Bernie Sanders is on the verge of losing the Democratic nomination, but we will have to see if any of its tenants make it through to Hillary Clinton’s final foreign policy as she tries to untie the party. Bernie Sanders has also been allowed to nominate 5 out of 15 members to the Democratic Party’s platform-writing body so only time will tell whether or not these nominations will have an impact on NATO policy for Democrats.

Trump’s Supposed Shake-up and Populism’s Rough Translation for Foreign Policy.

And what about Mr. Trump? Many in the Washington and Brussels establishment have decried his message of near-isolationist foreign policy. Trump is a true populist, though seeing one from the American political context rise to such prominence is something new. We have to take a step back from the shock-value of populist messages and look at why their politicians say them, and what they mean in practice. When Mr. Trump says the US pays too much for NATO, what he is doing in reality is striking another anti-establishment chord intended to whip further support. In reality such propositions are nearly impossible to enact, even from the powerful chair of the presidency thanks to a highly entrenched bureaucracy, congressional control over spending, and the agency of other alliance members. We have seen this play before from Europe’s most prominent populist strongman, Vladimir Putin, whose foreign policy posturing is often used to whip up domestic support, which results in accusations of saber rattling, and does little real change to the international status quo.

Trump voters thrive off of a cynicism for the status quo and establishment politics that they belief has left them disenfranchised for years. Because Trump has no political or foreign policy experience, it is difficult to forecast where his administration would realistically take the NATO alliance, which will most certainly not include the cessation of US spending. Bureaucracy will likely win the day, and the foreign policy and defense stalwarts who have held their positions for decades will leverage their experience and relationships with Congress against an inexperienced and populist staff in the White House.

A Populist America is Europe’s Opportunity to Lead

Fans of NATO’s current posturing and expansionary ambitions should not worry too much about a Trump presidency, even though a vote for Clinton is the safest bet for the alliance’s status quo. Because of treaties, congressional control over budgets, and a technocratic bureaucracy, supra-national organizations like NATO, the UN, and the Eurozone are like The Eagles famous lyric from Hotel California, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” A small window to any American reconsideration of the alliance can be had around the political firestorms of a British exit from the EU, a Greece exit from the Eurozone, or a Scottish exit from the United Kingdom; they are messy and near impossible to accomplish. A future President Trump, however, is certainly welcome to ignore the alliance all he wants, but such a position would only open the door for stronger European direction in its affairs, with the benefit of US money.

No US policymaker can actually direct NATO because the alliance is not a branch of the US presidency. The alliance is an incredibly diverse coalition of European and North American states, all with similar security interests for the region. No single statesman holds the key to this.

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