March 2016

When recently asked about his foreign policy advisors on Morning Joe, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declined to name any names except his own. Trump’s willingness to go his own way and buck conventional wisdom has endeared him to his supporters, but his pronouncements have alarmed many experts, who fear that his policies would damage the national security of the United States.  His newest outburst regarding NATO is no exception. Last week, after declaring that law enforcement should patrol Muslim neighborhoods and that the U.S. should loosen its definition of torture, Trump derided NATO for being an irrelevant organization that is costing Washington “a fortune.”  At a time when security crises mandate a strong NATO presence in Europe, one might question if this is merely another publicity stunt to sustain the public’s attention in a lengthy election cycle. However, Trump’s comments on NATO fit into a recurring pattern and deserve serious scrutiny.

In retrospect, Trump’s stance on NATO should not come as a surprise. The frontrunner in the Republican primary has unabashedly opposed his own party’s mainstream foreign policy, which advocates maintaining a strong presence abroad to promote economic and political freedom.  Still, his comments that the US should retract its aid of NATO because the member countries are “unfair economically to us” underscore the dangers behind a potential Trump administration, as well as the increasing politicization of the national security discourse in America. 

Trump’s calls for the U.S. to diminish its financial support of NATO breaks from decades of bipartisan consensus in Washington, stretching back to the creation of the alliance.  For Trump, appeasement of Russian President Vladimir Putin is more important than continuing the initiatives of the past three U.S. presidential administrations, which worked towards expanding the Organization’s presence in Europe.  Moreover, Donald Trump neglects recent events that have underlined the strategic importance of NATO to the West: including the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, the rise of cyber threats, the current migration crisis in Europe, and the emergence of ISIS in the Middle East.

Washington also values NATO as a diplomatic link to strengthen the transatlantic economic partnership between the U.S. and Europe, which accounts for nearly one-third of global trade and an estimated 15 million jobs.  Furthermore, an investment in NATO is a long-term investment in the peace and security of Europe. In light of the recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium and growing nationalist trends across Europe, that investment is needed more than ever.  Finally, the United States requires the use of NATO military bases to provide logistical support for US military operations in the Greater Middle East.

Despite all this, Trump claims that NATO is another example of wasteful spending by the Washington bureaucracy.  It is true that the U.S. finances more than 22.1 percent of NATO's budget, which is an unequal amount compared to the other 27 countries in NATO.  However, as the Washington Post recently noted, the American annual allotment of $514 million for NATO comprises a meager 0.09 percent of the entire U.S. Defense Budget.  In other words, for every $100 dollars that the U.S. spends on defense, it spends one penny on NATO.

The world has already seen the effects of delaying countries’ entry into NATO.  In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia three months after the Bucharest Summit which denied Georgia and Ukraine a  Membership Action Plan (MAP), for long-term integration into the alliance.  Ukraine’s absence in NATO also made it vulnerable to a Russian invasion of the Crimea Peninsula in 2014. Thus, Trump’s request to wind back NATO may explain a recent global poll by the German newspaper Handelsblatt, which asked participants to select which U.S. candidate they would prefer in the presidential election.  Out of all the G-20 countries surveyed, only Russia supported Trump. 

The implications of Trump’s “America first” strategy extend far beyond NATO alone. In his quest to stop U.S. allies from “ripping us off” Trump would continue his hyper-isolationist policies in Asia, disengaging U.S. troops from military installments in South Korea and Japan.  Such an outcome would virtually pave the path for China's dominance of the South China Sea.  For Trump, the security of U.S. allies would come only if these partners provide significant capital in return. 

This is the paradoxical world Donald Trump and his supporters are living in: the United States would make itself "great" by severing its strategic partnerships throughout the world.  Perhaps, when the conclusion of the primaries fosters a return to a debate on substantive issues, voters will understand that Donald Trump’s imprudence has no place in the American presidency. For now, though, his capricious and risky words on national security need to be loudly resisted.