The Trump Doctrine #3: NATO’s future insecure in the age of populism

The Rome Declaration

Previous weekend, the European Union (EU) celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, one of the two most important treaties of a functioning European Union, establishing the customs union, the single market, and the European Commission that manages EU day-to-day business. The celebration comes at a difficult time, however, as the United Kingdom aims at initiating Article 50 that would trigger Brexit and its subsequent leave out of the European Union. Furthermore, the Brexit has also raised doubts on the UK’s commitment to its NATO membership at a time military aggression from Russia has put leaders in the Baltics on their toes. Leaders of the 27 EU member states had pledged this weekend in Rome to work towards a safe and secure Europe, a prosperous and sustainable Europe, a social Europe, and also a stronger Europe on the global scene; “a Union committed to strengthening its common security and defense, also in cooperation and complementarity with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO], taking into account national circumstances and legal commitments.”

NATO “obsolete”

But predominantly, NATO has been in the news more often since US President Trump has called the organization obsolete while 18,000 military personnel are engaged in NATO missions around the world. 13,000 of which are active in Afghanistan in order to prevent it from becoming a safe haven for terrorists, following the attacks of 9/11 on US soil. Whether President Trump likes it or not, NATO is still very much involved in US foreign policy in forms where it has become more and more difficult, politically, to defend US military action overseas. Under former President Barack Obama, his campaign pledge for military pull-out from Afghanistan had to be reevaluated as instabilities came up with regards to Taliban militant insurgencies.

Tillerson commitment to NATO, or Putin?

Yet these multilateral military missions initiated under previous US administrations don’t seem to concern Trump. Last week, his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was criticized for not going to attend the foreign minister’s NATO meeting that is planned in the first week of April. Although Tillerson now ís scheduled to meet with other NATO members there — following said critique —, his meeting with Russia President Putin the week after is raising questions about US commitment to NATO; especially during a time when the Trump administration is under heavy scrutiny for alleged ties to the Kremlin. If, speculatively, the US would retract its NATO membership, it is believed the military alliance between the US and the EU is over and Russia would become the regional hegemony on the European continent.

Germany’s NATO debt invoice

Recent developments around Trump’s stance on NATO, take for example the 370 billion dollar invoice he reportedly handed to Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel — which is currently disputed, though Trump did tweet about a supposed ‘debt’ — comes at a critical time for Europe as Putin is moving Russian tanks to Ukraine’s border. Should Trump’s transactional view on international relations persist, the US might retract from its commitment to NATO should Russia invade a EU country like one of the Baltics or Poland. Although there are no financial debts or recordings of financial commitments but the 2% of a country’s GDP, Trump may try to use this clause to free the US from its commitments to NATO’s most important commitment of Collective defense under Article 5, that states: “an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.”

Le Pen meets Putin

In short, there is enough room for speculation whether NATO will exist after 2017, and also, whether the EU should drop its commitment to the US in light of the Trump presidency and focus on establishing its own collective defense against the tensions that are trying to dismember the Union. But state relationships are much more complicated than any suggestive question about ‘natural’ rivalry can be answered. The specific type of leadership has shown to be an important aspect to what both President Trump and President Putin regard as ‘partners.’ Trump formerly expressed his positive stance with the UK leaving the EU, seeing the Brexit-win in line with his own anti-immigrant stance in his presidential campaign. And Putin — who met with France’s presidential candidate Marine Le Pen just last week — shifted his support from Fillon as Le Pen had pledged to call for a Frexit — for France to leave the EU — and opposes EU sanctions against Russia over Crimea’s annexation. Her most important contender for France’s presidency, Emmanuel Macron, yet, backs these sanctions and accuses the Kremlin of cyberattacks on his campaign.

Originally a member, France dropped out of NATO in 1966 under President De Gaulle, only to come back in 2009 under President Sarkozy. Henceforth, a NATO coalition brought down Colonel Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, a military operation that would eventually find itself criticized over its political motivations to remain unclear. Although the results of the operation are debated over it means for terrorist insurgencies in the region, the decisiveness of the NATO victory over Gaddafi remains undisputed. If Le Pen would be elected president of France, not only its role in the EU, but also France’s role in NATO would come to question whether France under Le Pen will commit to Article 5 and whether she finds NATO’s actions in multilateral military mission supportive of France’s foreign policy.

The Age of Populism

It is exactly here where Le Pen differs from De Gaulle; and also, how populist-nationalistic leaders and their decisions do not correspond to the relationship between how the US and the EU have facilitated each other since the end of the Second World War. No one knows what Brexit will mean for the future for the UK, let alone for the future for NATO. When Trump was elected president, opinion-makers in the media claimed his “NATO is obsolete” comments were just the start of his negotiating strategy in order for NATO members to commit to their contributions; yet, this claim should now be carefully reviewed as Trump’s actual commitment to NATO and the EU is bound to become much clearer in the next month and it doesn’t spell to be good news for the EU. As the presidential election in France draws near, again, it is very difficult to imagine what the EU and NATO will look like would Le Pen come out as the winner. De Gaulle, although skeptical of US power influences in Europe, to a large extent initiated European integration and cleared the centuries old nationalist rivalries between France and Germany, making way for the European Community to lead to prosperity and peace as promised in the Treaty of Rome.

NATO’s further existence will essentially come down to how the US sees the role of EU states. Should the Trump administration drop multilateralism in any form, then both the EU and NATO are going to be redefined by its member states for their economic and military cooperation to continue.

“It’s the establishment, stupid!”

What should be taken into consideration going forward is the following: although the American Health Care Act — or Trumpcare — failed to replace the Affordable Care Act — or Obamacare — due to its astounding unpopularity over costs rising more than 1000%, the law still had an approval rating of 17%. Obamacare, around the same time seven years ago had an approval rating of only 47%. That’s a margin of 30%, enough for Republican lawmakers to withdraw their support from, but only in small numbers from Trumpcare. More interestingly, the reason why “Trumpcare” remains approved by Trump’s staunchest supporters is likely because of the nature of its electorate: The anti-establishment message of voters who don’t trust their political leaders anymore will make every Republican politician and lawmaker in the US rethink their position on NATO over their constituents views on US foreign policy. Polls found that by December 2016, 37% of Republicans view Russia President Putin favorably, compared to 24% in September 2016 and 10% in July 2014.

And let’s be clear, constituents voted Republican presidents out of office over their neoconservative views from the time of President George Bush (1989 – 1993), who was followed by President Bill Clinton (1993 – 2001) winning an election campaign focussed on domestic issues, and President George W Bush (2001 – 2009) who was replaced by President Barack Obama as he campaigned on a stark anti-war message, namely referring to the 2003 war in Iraq. President Donald Trump used the same campaign rhetoric against Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, and also against former Secretary of State and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over her involvement in the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 and her handling of the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi that followed. The difference between Trump and his predecessors is that Trump does not believe in multilateral action; not in the traditional way for the US, in any case. He wants to work together when it comes to “defeating terrorism” and “destroying ISIS,” but when it comes to issues of the Palestinian state, North Korea, Ukraine, there doesn’t seem to be much of a concern, let alone an interest in solving the issue. This is, of course, in stark contradiction to his recent predecessors who all saw a role for the US to play anywhere there’s conflict.

Story telling

To what extent Trump will remain an isolationist on the world stage is unclear seeing his closest advisors are inspired by the same Robert Kagan who withdrew his usual Republican support in the 2016 election to the Democratic candidate, Clinton. Whoever is going to make the final decisions on NATO, the Trump administration will eventually have to find a way to tell a story that is compelling for its constituents to understand. Sacrifices are needed in conflict, and whoever is calling the shots must be persuasive enough for the public not to turn on him. NATO’s story about the American, Canadian and European military alliance brought forth during the Cold War is something that the public already knows and can draw its own conclusions from. Should Trump disregard the NATO alliance, he will face much more difficulty in other military missions abroad. Subsequently, NATO will go through an existential crisis if the public does not see its use anymore. 

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