The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is being led into uncharted territory by one of its founding members: the United States. Even though the Atlantic alliance has faced problems since its founding in April 1949, the Trump ‘foreign policy’ that is continuously hostile towards US allies presents a challenge to the longevity of the Organization. In the era of Trump, US foreign policy is aimed at dismantling the very foundation that made the US a superpower. In an article I wrote for The Geopolitics titled, The Perfect Conditions Created by Trump for the Rise of China,I pointed out that, President Trump’s threats to NATO are changing the course of American global leadership, as such threats towards traditional alliances threaten America’s dominance in the world. The foreign policy that was meant to put “America first” is pushing America backwards to a period when the US practiced a policy of isolationism until WW1 and before WW2.
While President Jefferson in his first inaugural address in 1801 used the phrase “entangling alliances with none”, President Trump however, is entangling himself with States that have been traditionally regarded as hostile powers by Washington. As Trump regards NATO as “obsolete” and threatens leaving the Organization if member states do not follow through with pledges to increase their annual contributions to the Alliance, Russia’s dream of a weak NATO in Europe is on the verge of becoming a reality. In Trump, the Kremlin has found the perfect candidate who will weaken if not destroy the Atlantic alliance. A weak NATO would mean Russia would increase its influence in the Baltic States (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia), former Soviet republics considered by the Kremlin its sphere of influence. Trump’s May 2017 failure to commit the US to NATO’s Article 5, which says an attack on one ally is an attack on all, proves that Russia has room to increase its influence in the Baltic states without a possible reaction from the US. Even though the following month Trump committed to the common-defence provision in an impromptu comment at a White House press conference, his tepid support has led some European allies to question if the US would come to their aid.
In an odd way, Trump and Putin have the same goal –to undermine the Western alliance. For Mr. Trump, he might be doing it subconsciously due to his ignorance and lack of understanding of the importance of NATO alliances but for the Russian President, his efforts to dismantle the NATO alliance are driven by a need to reset Europe’s security order that is characterized with strong Russian influence throughout Europe. I do not however, believe that the Kremlin seeks a Cold War military and political domination of Europe through the advance of the Red Army and spread of communist ideology but they want something more strategic and long lasting –a stronger, influential Russia in Europe. A weakened Atlantic alliance would mean Russia can continue supplanting a value driven, rules based international order with the Kremlin shaping every aspect of political order in Europe and the Americas.
The Alliance has always meant more than providing a countervailing balance to Soviet power. To a considerable extent, NATO evolved into a community of like-minded states, united not just by their opposition to Soviet communism but also by their determination (as the preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 stated) “to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law”. However, the Atlantic is now at a crossroads thanks to Mr Trump’s infatuation with Vladimir Putin. Some could argue that, Mr. Trump’s assumptions that NATO members should contribute more on defence and security are founded; the problem is that Mr. Trump is going at it in the wrong manner. Past US presidents have also voiced the same concerns as Mr. Trump but not in the same manner that threatens the existence of the alliance. Threatening to get out of the Atlantic alliance or comparing the alliance to NAFTA weakens the resolve of the alliance against hostile actors like Russia. Vladimir Putin will use Trump’s disdain for NATO for his own agenda.
A strong NATO’s future hangs in a critical balance. With a US President that continuously moves away from the fundamentals of US foreign policymaking, at this point Russia has to just seat back while Trump dismantles the Atlantic alliance with one tweet at a time. Alexander Vershbow, a former deputy secretary general of NATO, pointed out that, “In terms of values, Trump is much more attracted to what Putin describes as Russian values.” These Russian values want to lead to a “post-Western world order”, thus changing the current international world order.
If Mr. Trump continues on this path of attempting to rewrite and destroy the Western alliance as it is with the uninformed political policy of “America First”, a post-Western world order would be nigh. History cannot be undone by a tweet, what Mr. Trump should start thinking about is why the United States for over 70 years has maintained alliances with western Europe, invested in its security and why NATO was created. Furthermore Mr. Trump should be aware of who gets to benefit from a weakened NATO and western alliance. NATO isn’t meant to be a gift for Europe but it is in the United States’ self-interest to make sure that the alliance survives. The organization has done more for the US than any other country especially when it invoked Article 5 after the 9/11 attacks (that was the only time that Article 5 has ever been invoked in the history of the organization). It would be a terrible political move if Mr. Trump ignores how the alliance is also beneficial to the US. European Council President Donald Tusk warned European leaders in June 2018, that judging by Trump’s language, allies could no longer assume that NATO would endure. There is reason for concern depending on how much Trump’s utterances become policy in regards to NATO and how much he gives up to Putin in regards to sanctions relief against Russia, Crimea’s annexation and Russia’s support of Assad in Syria to name a few. The manner in which Trump decides to address these matters with Putin during the July 16 summit, will send a clear message to NATO members. Considering how Trump was quick to offer concessions to Kim jong-un in June 2018, it should not come as a surprise if he decides to use the same failing tactic with Vladimir Putin of withdrawing US military presence in Europe.