Every US president since the Second World War has held an unwavering commitment to the transatlantic relationship and its most important institution, NATO. Collective transatlantic security has fostered peace and stability in Europe and, more importantly, strengthened America’s global hegemony. President Trump’s recent comments regarding NATO break with traditionally bipartisan support for the transatlantic alliance. If his skepticism becomes official policy, it will directly threaten US geostrategic interests.
President Trump has repeatedly stated that he considers NATO “obsolete,” a misguided and dangerous belief for a sitting US president. NATO is a critical part of the American security apparatus. It unites 28 member countries through the principle of collective defense and has security partnerships with non-members in key regions, such as North Africa and Central Asia. In an effort to deter Russian aggression, there are currently more than 7,000 NATO troops deployed in Eastern Europe, supported by member-supplied jets, tanks, and other vehicles. NATO also reinforces the United States’ ability to pursue its global interests. NATO has supported American counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, and the security it provides in Europe allows the United States to engage more deeply in less stable regions, like the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific. Without NATO and the support of Europe, the United States would be less capable of countering other threats around the world.
Weeks into his administration, it is still unclear whether or not President Trump would uphold NATO’s security guarantee. While every NATO member must contribute to the collective defense, it is ultimately the threat of military retaliation from the United States that deters countries, like Russia, from attacking NATO allies. European partners worry that President Trump’s rhetoric will embolden Russia to pursue aggressive actions against NATO members on its periphery. NATO members in Eastern Europe are understandably concerned about this prospect, especially given Russia’s renewed attacks in Ukraine.
When asked recently whom he trusts more, German Chancellor Angela Merkel or Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump answered, “I start off trusting both.” This response is dangerous because it implies that President Trump is placing a NATO ally like Germany on equal footing with a strategic adversary like Russia. He has also revealed a willingness to lift sanctions against Russia without corresponding concessions from Moscow. These actions would reinforce NATO partners’ fears about the American security guarantee and satisfy Vladimir Putin’s desire to weaken the transatlantic alliance.
President Trump’s rhetoric has led European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans to suggest that European countries take a greater role in their own collective security. A decision by European allies to increase their financial, logistical, and personnel support to NATO would greatly improve transatlantic security cooperation. However, if European leaders feel they cannot depend on the United States as a security partner, they may pursue a form of collective defense that is partially or fully detached from NATO. Such an autonomous defense initiative could duplicate NATO’s resources and drive a sharper wedge into the transatlantic relationship. At a time of growing geopolitical instability, it would be damaging to US interests to lose access to Europe’s cyber and missile defense capabilities, intelligence sharing, and response readiness.
In addition to their security relationship, the United States and Europe share unparalleled economic ties. Trade between the United States and the European Union comprises more than 30 percent of global trade. President Trump’s protectionist rhetoric endangers these ties. Similarly, his Eurosceptic and anti-NATO views align neatly with Europe’s growing populist parties, who, if successful in the upcoming French, Dutch, and German elections, could unravel the European Union by holding membership referendums. If this institution disintegrates, it will weaken the economies of Europe, thus threatening the American economy as well. The US president should be wary of this populist narrative in Europe because a united Europe strengthens the Atlantic Community and benefits the United States strategically and economically.
When asked recently about President Trump and the future of the transatlantic relationship, Angela Merkel said, “we Europeans have our destiny in our own hands.” European leaders think Europe may soon be without its most important ally. Any division in the transatlantic relationship, however, would also leave the United States without its most important security and trade partner, which would inhibit the United States’ ability to take action around the globe. President Trump campaigned on the promise to “Make America Great Again.” However, if the new administration fails to reaffirm the NATO security guarantee, encourages the Eurosceptic populist forces in Europe, and pursues a rapprochement with Russia at Europe’s expense, it could create a permanent rift in the Atlantic Community. This outcome would not only jeopardize the achievements of the transatlantic relationship, it would also make America considerably less “great” on the world stage.
About the author: Corey Cooper earned his BA in International Studies from American University in 2016. Corey is a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).