Can NATO survive resurgent Trumpism?

NATO’s outgoing Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg handled Trump’s populism quite well. Will his successor follow in his footsteps?

Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during his campaign event, in Chesapeake, Virginia, US on June 28, 2024.
Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during his campaign event, in Chesapeake, Virginia, US on June 28, 2024.

Can NATO survive resurgent Trumpism?

Upon signing the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, then-US President Harry Truman described the landmark creation of NATO as a 'neighbourly act' for mutual protection. 'We are like a group of householders.'

Fast-forward to 2018, and an existential threat to the alliance was posed by the United States—the same country that played the most crucial role in establishing the key international military organisation and remained supportive of its mission and principles for many decades. It came precisely from another US president, Donald Trump, who consistently claimed during his tenure that NATO allies were ‘ripping us off’ by not meeting the 2% defence spending budget.

With Trump looking poised for re-election, he has made statements on his campaign trail that are as shocking as the ones he made six years ago. He said he would encourage Russia to 'do whatever the hell they want' with the NATO countries that have not so far met the spending target.

Genuine concern

This has sparked legitimate concerns in Europe that another term in office for Trump could see the US shift its focus from the continent and the raging war in Ukraine to a country that Trump and also incumbent President Joe Biden have been keeping under the financial, economic and military radar: China.

Outgoing NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg dealt tactfully and resiliently with Trump’s immense pressures. The seasoned diplomat and former prime minister of Norway met with Trump at the White House in 2018, which also played a huge role in defusing the tension. On the sidelines of the summit in Washington, D.C., I asked a senior NATO official how the alliance would tackle its relationship with the United States if Trump were to become president.

"To the vast majority of Americans, the benefits of a successful alliance like NATO as we are celebrating 75 years of its creation are remarkably clear; namely, it has successfully deterred any attack on a NATO state," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

President Harry Truman signs the North Atlantic Pact, creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) as several foreign diplomats watch. August 24, 1949

"I think that the American people understand that Europe is generally meeting or exceeding the defence spending threshold, and it’s important to be part of this alliance."

Foreign policy preview?

There are strong indications from Trump’s press statements during his campaign trail that his second term (if elected) would be as disruptive as his first one. On Ukraine, he said he can end the war “in 24 hours”. On China, he said he would impose tariffs on Chinese exports again if they could exceed 60%. On Israel’s war on Gaza, he said it was ‘taking a long time’, and Israel had to ‘Get it over with and get it over with fast.’

Republican legislators have already blocked vital funding for Ukraine several times, which Kyiv’s allies saw as a key factor in the country’s recent territorial losses. The fears that Trump’s ‘America First’ policy will eclipse the US's historical central role in Europe’s security are real and could trigger a sense of insecurity in NATO and other international organisations who fear that Trump will undermine them.

Under the previous Trump administration, the US became the first country in the world to formally withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. It cut funding to the United Nations relief agency for Palestinian refugees, withdrew from the United Nations’ cultural organisation UNESCO, citing “anti-Israel bias”, and formally started the process of pulling the US out of the World Health Organisation (WHO), accusing it of mismanaging the COVID-19 pandemic when it broke out in China.

Trump's 'America First' policy could trigger a sense of insecurity in NATO and other international organisations.

Additionally, it imposed sanctions on the International Criminal Court (ICC) former prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, over the court's investigation into alleged war crimes by the US in Afghanistan and US ally Israel in the Palestinian territories.

In stark contrast, the Biden administration wants to boost international cooperation and the capability of international organisations. It frequently says the US, as the most powerful state in the world, has a duty to ensure the survival of its allies worldwide.

Stronger than ever

"After 75 years of establishing NATO and despite all the pressure from Russia and other global challenges, this alliance today is stronger than anytime before," US State Department Spokesperson for Arabic media Sam Werberg told Al Majalla.

"Russian President Vladimir Putin tried his best to dismantle NATO, but today, it expanded to add two more countries: Finland and Sweden. We don't believe at all that NATO is a US instrument but rather a powerful alliance of 32 allies. We are reinvigorating NATO for another 75 years and more."

In this July 16, 2018, file photo, US President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands in Helsinki, Finland.

But I asked the US official if NATO actually and ironically became stronger under Trump due to his insistence on equitable budget-sharing, which has seemingly paid off. Twenty-three countries now meet—and some exceed—the 2% defence rule of GDP.

"This alliance has been here for 75 years, and it's unfair to sum it up this way. We have to take into consideration the achievements made by the successive US governments—from President Truman to President Biden. Trump isn't an exception, and we can't single out an American president and attribute to him the success or strength of NATO."

Trump also seemed inclined during his first term towards similar populist leaders in Europe, chiefly Hungarian far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Trump even welcomed him in the White House in 2019 and said he was doing a 'tremendous job' despite racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic statements Orban made. On Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump sees him as a 'strong leader'.

One thing for certain is that Trump has proved to be a highly unpredictable leader, and it remains anyone's guess as to what his plan is for NATO and other international organisations if elected. His red lines have always kept changing, reversing and remerging.

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