Trump, Biden and NATO: Where to next?

By Dr Gorana Grgić
Lecturer at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney

To study transatlantic relations is to permanently have a sense of déjà vu. Since the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, the history of alliance has been a history of crises among allies.

Some argue the issues that have upset the relations between the two sides of the Atlantic have been features rather than bugs given the power imbalances purposefully built into the alliance.

Others maintain that most of NATO’s problems are of more contemporary nature as with the end of the Cold War the alliance outlived its original purpose and has ever since been on a quest of reinvention.

Regardless of the argument one finds more convincing, there is no doubt the Trump presidency has posed a unique and unprecedented challenge to NATO.

Not one for alliances

The 45th president of the United States has rarely missed an opportunity to disparage the idea of long-term alliances and multilateral organisations as platforms for cooperation in the international system.

Moreover, he has been on record bringing into question US commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Article 5 on collective defense, particularly in relation to protecting smaller states in the 30-strong alliance.

Equally, he has never ceased to criticise the vast majority of NATO allies deeming them free riders benefiting from American security umbrella and “owing America” military dues.

Given the cottage industry of chroniclers of the Trump White House, we have been able to learn that the incumbent president seriously tabled withdrawing the United States from NATO in 2018.

Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly was apparently recorded saying he had an extremely arduous task in trying to convince the president to change his mind.

His third national security adviser John Bolton, meanwhile, believes there is still potential for an ‘October surprise’ in the form of Trump’s announcement of intention to pull out from the alliance should he be re-elected.

Donald Trump (right) meets with the Secretary of NATO next to a US and NATO flag
US President Donald Trump meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House in December 2019. Pic: White House

Based on his record on a number of other foreign policy decisions, the odds of president Trump acting on his instincts are not nil.

This has contributed to the general sense of unease and accelerated the talks of developing strategic autonomy across the European capitals. The past couple of years of NATO summits have thus made for rather awkward gatherings.

At the same time, it is important to remember that while the US president might appear to be omnipotent in foreign policy, the Congress still has a significant sway in checking the power of the executive.

The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act explicitly prohibits “the use of funds to suspend, terminate, or provide notice of denunciation of the North Atlantic Treaty” which could be enforced based on the Truman-era Supreme Court decision that curbed president’s ability to disregard congressional limits on his power on matters related to national security.

Furthermore, even under the presidency of a NATO-sceptic such as Trump, the alliance has been able to grow by additional two new members – Montenegro and North Macedonia. Equally, despite all the talk of pulling out troops from Europe, US commitment to the defence of Europe from Russian action has undeniably strengthened if one looks at the trendlines of American military presence and specific capabilities in the region.

There is going to be no shortage of lobbying on part of the likes of Poland and the three Baltic republics for president Trump to stay on this course.

The China challenge

Given that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is president Trump’s foreign policy antipode, the prospect of his presidency is perceived as a much-needed tonic for transatlantic relations.

Throughout his career as a senator and later as the vice president, Biden established himself as a firm believer in the alliance. Moreover, some of his closest advisors are committed transatlanticists, so there is little doubt they would have a sizeable imprint on the direction of Biden’s foreign policy.

We could thus expect damage control and patching up the relations with European counterparts to begin in the background even during the transition period. If elected, the policy imperatives of the first year of a Biden presidency are going to be in a lot of ways similar to that of Obama’s.

The reconstruction at home will take up most of the policymaking bandwidth, while on the international front we can expect a much more values-laden and multilateralist foreign policy.

Unlike Obama, however, Biden will have to deal with the China challenge from day one.

In doing so, he will be relying on transatlantic allies both in policy coordination, as well as in demands for stepped up military spending. Therefore, we should not expect that everything will be smooth sailing in the alliance as there are true rifts in Europe over China policy, while defence burdensharing remains a perennial problem.

Biden’s focus on values might come to a head with some of NATO’s members who have been on a steady democratic backsliding track over the past decade such as Turkey, Poland and Hungary.

Ultimately, regardless who wins the November elections, NATO will continue to undergo transformation and managing internal crises moving into the new decade.

European allies are poised to grow more autonomous, but the prospects of transatlantic cooperation will drastically differ depending on the resident of the Oval Office over the next four years.

Banner image: Norwegian soldiers prepare for joint exercises with UK air force units. Source: UK Royal Airforce / NATO

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