NATO and Trump: Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst?

I know it is pretty hard to assess what might Donald Trump do in the White House but it seems that his rhetoric suggests he is hardly the biggest fan of NATO (especially not in the current form). So what should NATO (its members states) do now, to hope for the best and prepare for the worst? And what could be the best and what the worst scenario? Read few comments.


John R. Deni*, Research Professor of National Security Studies, Strategic Studies Institute

I’m not sure changing Trump’s views — which appear to be inconsistent at best — is really within NATO’s ability at this point. At best, I suspect what NATO member states and the alliance itself will need to do over the coming months is to get Mr. Trump on the ground to show him what the Suwalki Gap looks like, show him what the Multinational Corps HQ NE is doing in Szczecin, show him what role NATO is playing vs. terrorism at SHAPE HQ and in Brussels, and show him where and how allies are investing their own funds in collective defense.

Until that happens, the allies and the alliance should focus on the key, senior advisors, ensuring that Mr. Trump is hearing the same advice from his VP, SECDEF, SECSTATE, National Security Advisor, etc. That will necessitate intensive outreach and invitations as well.

Finally, European states, particularly those on the ‘front lines’ so to speak, ought to be ensuring they are doing all they can to make it each (read: cheap) for American military forces to be based in their countries. If forward basing and forward deterrence can be seen as a good ‘deal’ in the eyes of the administration, then U.S. forces in Europe are likely to remain there in the short run.

* These views do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government

Garret Martin, Professorial Lecturer, School of International Service, Editor at Large at the European Institute, American University

As with any questions regarding Trump and NATO, we are, as you rightly pointed out, dealing with an impressive amount of uncertainty!

Trump has indeed shown quite a lot of disdain/contempt for NATO in some of his declarations, including the recent interview with The Times and Bild. But he has also backtracked at times, be it during the campaign or after talks with Obama and Stoltenberg. It is also true that some of his cabinet nominees, such as James Mattis (for Defense) have not sung the same tune about NATO than Trump. So it is not clear whether Trump wants to, or can, break with NATO.

With that being said, I suppose the best case scenario is that Trump, in line with many of his predecessors, is simply using his harsh rhetoric as a bargaining tool to get NATO allies to spend more on defense, and he has no intention of undermining the US commitment to Europe’s defense. The worse case scenario would be Trump following through with his belief that NATO is obsolete, and deciding that the US should simply withdraw the organization, leaving Europe fully in charge of its security.

As for what Allies should do, that is again a hard question. But it certainly makes sense for NATO members to continue the current trend of increasing defense spending. That would serve to a) undercut Trump’s criticisms of NATO, b) prepare Europe for any eventuality, including the worst case scenario outlined above, and c) be a smart choice considering the growing threats to Europe in the East and South.

Second, NATO members must also focus on underlining NATO’s political role and developing outreach among Europe’s public opinion. Considering the rise of populism, there are other political figures that are threatening to withdraw their country from NATO should they be elected (see Marine Le Pen in France). As for NATO’s political role, it is important to go beyond the narrow focus on defense spending and emphasize the other functions of the organization.

Stanley Sloan, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council of the United States, Member, Duco Experts, Visiting Scholar in Political Science, Middlebury College

Given the disturbing messages that President-elect Donald Trump has continued to issue about NATO, a wait-and-see attitude on the part of the allies may no longer suffice. It now appears that the task of preserving the transatlantic alliance with some sense of coherence and some ability to deter Putin’s adventurism may fall to efforts by a combination of Trump national security cabinet appointments and allied leaders. Both Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State nominee, and General James Mathis, Trump’s nominee as Secretary of Defense, have disagreed with Trump’s suggestion that the United States should regard its commitment to NATO’s Article 5 collective defense provision as dependent on an ally’s level of defense efforts. Both nominees have testified before Congress that the commitment should be sacrosanct. The allies can hope that this position eventually becomes Trump administration policy, undoubtedly accompanied by continued pressure on the allies to “do more.”

However, the allies cannot sit back, waiting and hoping for help from the Trump appointees. As soon as Trump takes the oath of office the major allies – and even smaller ones – should send high level emissaries to Washington to meet with cabinet officials and President Trump to detail what they contribute to the alliance and the plans that they have for doing more. At some point, it would be good if the European allies could put together a package of defense improvements to present to the new administration. But at this point, individual national outreach might be the most effective way to try to influence the direction of the new American ship of state on its maiden voyage.

Sean KayProfessor, Department of Politics and Government, Ohio Wesleyan University

There are a range of conflicting dynamics, and most are very dangerous, involving Mr. Trump and American national security – beginning with his affection for Vladimir Putin and his assault on pillars of international order – NATO and the European Union. It is the case that NATO needs significant reform – the kind normally undertaken after a thorough policy review, not without thought, or via Tweets. NATO has done a good job of reassuring its Eastern members about Putin’s Russia, but it has not done so well on the burden-sharing front. This has gone on for decades and many observers warned that if the US didn’t lead on re-balancing the alliance, someone would eventually politically demagogue the burden-sharing issue – that has happened. What makes it more alarming though is that Mr. Trump’s approach appears to play right into Mr. Putin’s playbook. NATO’s members actually not need to spend more money – they need mainly to pool their assets so as to work effectively together – with America’s help, not with America holding a sledgehammer or aligning with Vladimir Putin. But, the deeper problem for NATO is that this Trumpism/Putinism is spreading, within the alliances – authoritarian and anti-liberal trends in Turkey and Hungary in particular – even Bulgaria and to a degree Poland. What portends in coming elections in France and Germany?

This is the worst case – that authoritarian thinking is spreading and NATO has no real way to address that – but to stand silently when the pre-amble of the NATO treaty is not respected by members, then we have a serious problem about credibility. Meanwhile, NATO needs serious decision-making reform – including the ability to send forces to engage in Art. V without full consensus; and also a membership review and suspension process for those who violate major treaty commitments. Worst case? I think the worst case is that the United States has a president who appears in open alliance with Vladimir Putin – that is to distinguish from the need to work constructively with Russia where interests align; but Putin is a threat to the core foundations of American power – the liberal international order – and to his own people in Russia – this risks throwing confusion and possibly re-nationalization of defense practices in Europe – this has not gone well historically.

Best case? I think the best case would be for Mr. Trump’s advisers to educate him – but his Secretary of State designee said he’d never discussed Russia with Mr. Trump, and Mr. Trump pulled the rug out from under his Defense Secretary designate who just this week affirmed the US commitment to NATO and Europe only to have his boss undermine him. Short of that, Europe is going to need to look hard in the mirror and double down on building integrative architectures that will help it when necessary work without the United States. The good news there is collectively Europe is overwhelmingly stronger i.e. than Russia – and the forces of integration will with time win out over those who would seek to disrupt. I do worry more about the trade issues and the European Union actually; especially as Mr. Trump has said his primary opinion on it came over a pique on his golf course in Ireland – we might get to that best case if he better understood some basic history and national interest.

Stephen SaidemanPaterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University

NATO members should spend more of their GDP on defense, both because they need to if the US becomes less reliable and because it might reduce Trump’s criticisms.

Yes, hope for the best, prepare for the worst.  Which means developing alternatives to NATO—whether that is the EU or more regional organizations.

Best scenario—he is all talk and Putin decides not to risk war over the Baltics.  Worst scenario—Putin decides to test Trump and west by choosing some form of aggression in the East, and then Trump/US blocks decisions at NATO.  Also worst: US removes troops from Europe.


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