Is NATO Still Relevant? Trump’s Not the Only One Asking.

From Bob Gates to Leon Panetta, the Republican front-runner isn’t the only one wondering if the Cold War alliance is obsolete.

HICKORY, NC - MARCH 14: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the crowd during a campaign rally at Lenoir-Rhyne University March 14, 2016 in Hickory, North Carolina. The North Carolina Republican primary will be held March 15. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
HICKORY, NC - MARCH 14: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the crowd during a campaign rally at Lenoir-Rhyne University March 14, 2016 in Hickory, North Carolina. The North Carolina Republican primary will be held March 15. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Slamming NATO as “obsolete,” Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump pulls all American troops out of Europe and announces that the U.S. will slash its financial contributions to the decades-old military alliance.

At least, this is what the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination has suggested he’d do if he were to be elected in November. It’s a position that current and former U.S. officials and other experts say would be disastrous for American and European security because of the growing tensions with an expansionist Russia and the ongoing threat of new Islamic State-linked terror attacks like those that have hit Paris and Brussels.

But some of the same experts concede Trump’s comments on NATO may not be as irrational as they first sound. The real estate magnate who once said he gets his national security advice “from the shows” has also keyed into longtime criticisms of the alliance: that it is too slow to evolve to emerging threats, and the U.S. carries too much of the weight financially and militarily.

In one of his last major addresses, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican who served the administrations of both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, warned of a “dim, if not dismal future” of “military irrelevance” for NATO if Europeans didn’t invest more. Under NATO bylaws, members are supposed to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Apart from the U.S., only four of the 27 other member countries do.

“The blunt reality,” Gates said in the 2011 speech in Brussels, “is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

Defense Secretaries Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel, who followed Gates at the Pentagon, carried on his criticism. Just after taking his cabinet post in 2011, Panetta said that while warnings about NATO partners’ inadequate security investment had been acknowledged, fiscal pressures had “eroded the political will to do something about them.” In 2015, Hagel used his final appearance at a NATO meeting as defense secretary to express his concerns with a growing split over the role of the alliance. “This is a time for unity, shared purpose, and wise, long-term investments across the spectrum of military capability,” he urged.

There is, to be sure, an enormous difference between warning that the alliance was at risk of becoming obsolete and calling, as Trump has done, for it to basically be dissolved. Trump’s critique of NATO echoes that of Gates and subsequent defense secretaries; the businessman just goes much further.

Stephen Szabo of the German Marshall Fund said that Trump, somewhat counterintuitively, might strengthen the case of U.S. officials who for years have been beseeching and browbeating NATO partners into doing more.

“It might be useful for policymakers to say, ‘Well, we’ve got this crazy Trump guy back in the U.S., and if you guys don’t do more, we’re going to have a problem,’” Szabo said, agreeing NATO hasn’t moved quickly enough to confront threats from terrorism to Russia to military modernization. “Yes, they have been too slow, and NATO and American leadership at NATO has to be a little bit more aggressive. They have to push the Europeans more, and now they’ve got a real argument. They can say, ‘Look, this Trump thing is not just Trump.’”

But Szabo said Trump’s NATO attack was more intended to tap into a widespread misconception among Americans that “Europeans are a bunch of freeloaders.”

A June 2015 Pew Research Center poll of American public opinion on NATO showed stark divisions. While the percentage of Americans with favorable views of NATO has dropped from 53 percent in 2009 to 49 percent in 2015, it’s held steady the past three years. A majority of Democrats — 56 percent — view NATO favorably, while only 43 percent of Republicans do. Yet when it comes to the treaty obligation to defend NATO partners, such as in the event of Russian aggression, 69 percent of Republicans said Washington should provide military assistance, and only 47 percent of Democrats said the same.

Following the recent bombings in Brussels, Trump said with characteristic brashness that the U.S. and its NATO partners should consider kicking out members who didn’t pay their way and leave Ukraine to fend for itself against Russia. He’s since doubled-down on his criticism that the alliance is impotent in the face of new terrorism threats, pointing to a focus on traditional state-on-state conflicts that dates to 1949, when NATO was formed to counter aggression from the then-Soviet Union. The mogul said the U.S. should pull back financially and militarily.

“I really do understand this stuff — NATO is obsolete,” Trump said in a Tuesday town hall hosted by CNN. He drilled down in a Wednesday town hall hosted by MSNBC, saying, “We don’t really need NATO in its current form … you have countries that are getting a free ride.”

Trump is infamously inconsistent, even absurdist, in his positions, and foreign policy is no exception. Earlier in the same MSNBC forum, Trump went so far as to say he wouldn’t take the potential use of nuclear weapons against terrorists in Europe off the table. He also repeated recent claims he’d withdraw some 80,000 U.S. troops from Japan and South Korea, effectively replacing them with nuclear weapons, which both countries adamantly rejected.

Candidates from both parties have sought to capitalize on Trump’s latest comments on NATO as bad for the U.S. and good for its opponents. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump’s closest Republican rival, said last week that his call to draw back from Europe would give both ISIS and Russian President Vladimir Putin “a major victory.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, quipped, “Putin already hopes to divide Europe. If Mr. Trump gets his way, it’ll be like Christmas in the Kremlin.”

But Trump’s comments on NATO are also emblematic of his uncanny, if unsophisticated, propensity for identifying symptoms of persistent foreign policy challenges and bluntly calling them out.

Phillip Karber, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and president of the Potomac Foundation, an independent nonprofit research center, said the Europeans have struggled for decades with proactive security cooperation.

“You can pick almost any moment in European history since the end of World War II and Europeans have had problems getting their act together,” Karber, a former advisor to Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, told Foreign Policy in a phone interview from Ukraine. “So when the U.S. plays the ‘let’s lead from behind’ game, basically nothing happens. And if everybody sort of defaults to nothingness, it’s kind of like Nietzsche run wild.”  

While never demanding NATO’s dissolution, the last three U.S. defense secretaries expressed criticism of NATO, and U.S. officials have been constantly cajoling partners for years to pony up at least 2 percent of GDP for defense spending, to little effect. With continued fallout from the global economic recession, many partners have actually been making cuts. Though the budget reductions have begun to slow, only five countries are expected to meet the 2 percent mark in 2015, according to the NATO secretary-general’s most recent annual report.

Measuring by NATO’s budget alone — some $2.3 billion — the U.S. accounts for just over 22 percent of the costs, or some $514 million dollars. That’s equivalent to less than 1 percent of the United States’s own overall defense budget of $585 billion, according to the Washington Post’s number crunching.

To put U.S. defense spending in perspective relative to that of other NATO member countries, the U.S. accounted for more than 72 percent of NATO members’ total defense expenditures last year, spending $649.9 billion. Outside of the U.S., the other 27 NATO members combined to spend less than 28 percent, around $251 billion, of the total.

As Trump calls for the U.S. to pull back from NATO, current U.S. policy is headed in the other direction because of Putin’s aggressive moves throughout Eastern Europe. The U.S. has about 65,000 troops assigned to its European Command, down from roughly 200,000 at the height of the Cold War, but the Obama administration has been building up its presence again with the “European Reassurance Initiative.” On Wednesday, the U.S. European Command announced the deployment of a new armored brigade, adding up to about 4,000 troops, starting next February. The administration requested $3.4 billion for the initiative in its latest budget, up from $800 million in 2016.

A U.S. decision to contribute less to NATO, rather than forcing partners to carry more of the weight, would simply weaken the alliance, said Jorge Benitez, a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

“Without NATO, the U.S. would spend much more on defense and have fewer capabilities,” Benitez told Foreign Policy. “Yes, they should be [increasing defense spending] faster and the other allies should join in, but cutting U.S. support will make this problem worse, not better.”

While a primary part of Trump’s argument about NATO’s potential irrelevance is that it doesn’t address terrorism, which he calls the No. 1 threat, the alliance has already been engaged in counterterrorism efforts for years. The only time NATO’s Article 5 charter — an attack against one member nation is an attack against all — has been invoked was by the U.S., in response to the 9/11 attacks. NATO partners have deployed tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan over the course of the long war there, suffering significant casualties along the way.

In a press briefing Wednesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford rejected the assertion that NATO was “obsolete.”

“There is a lot that NATO has done and is doing,” Carter said. In a plug for NATO’s continued relevance, he cited ongoing discussions about the alliance formally joining the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, though every member country already contributes individually.

In the same press briefing, Dunford, who commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan, bristled at the mere question. “That question is probably is a question that might have been asked 15 years ago,” he said. “But it’s hard to think about asking that question today when you look at the challenges in Europe, both to the east and the south.”

Still, there is little doubt that NATO’s mission needs to continue to change in the wake of the recent terror attacks in Paris and Brussels and the growing fears of imminent new strikes by the Islamic State.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Tuesday that counterterrorism will be the subject of meetings at the upcoming NATO summit in Poland in July. Still, he seemed to suggest counterterrorism was up to individual NATO members, despite the well-worn criticism that European intelligence sharing and anti-terrorism tactics are ineffective precisely because they are siloed between or even within countries.

“Obviously terrorism and counterterrorism is something every NATO member itself has to confront,” Cook said. “It doesn’t mean the core focus of NATO needs to necessarily change, but we think that NATO members have individual decisions, individual security concerns they need to address.”

Karber said Trump’s criticism that NATO doesn’t focus on counterterrorism is unfair given that it is primarily a military alliance and other institutions geared toward law enforcement are better suited. “It’s a cheap shot to accuse NATO of not covering threats that they weren’t originally organized to address,” he said.

Officials and experts broadly agree that Trump’s claims the U.S. should pull back from NATO demonstrate an obvious lack of understanding for the interconnectedness of U.S. security challenges. “Donald Trump’s recommendations for NATO reveal a superficial and childlike understanding of the alliance,” Benitez told Foreign Policy. “It is embarrassing for a U.S. presidential candidate to know so little.”

Karber agreed that while Trump didn’t have the right answers for what to do about NATO, he was asking fair questions.

“We’ve put millions of man hours of effort between end of WWII and now into the security of Europe. We do care about what happens,” he said. “But reexamination is honestly healthy. I think the foreign policy elite have been overly demeaning of Trump.”

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