By: Patrick Savage, Columnist
Photo Credit: CNBC
Statements made by candidate and now-President Donald Trump on the US commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have caused much consternation throughout the alliance over the past year. President Trump has previously suggested that US support for NATO should be conditional on nations paying their fair share, with former-President Obama assuring the world after the election that Mr. Trump would be fully committed to the alliance.[i] Since taking office, President Trump has vacillated on support for NATO. He contradicted Defense Secretary James Mattis by stating NATO is obsolete, but then made an about-face to declare support for the alliance.[ii] NATO has weathered its share of crises over its nearly 70 years of existence. While unlikely in the short term, it is worth considering whether the alliance could survive without the unconditional backing of the United States given President Trump’s unclear intentions.
On paper, NATO has the potential to be viable as a collective security organization without the United States. Remove the United States from the equation and NATO retains 27 member states with nearly 600 million people[iii] and a combined nominal GDP of almost $20 trillion.[iv] This should be more than adequate to build a self-sufficient military infrastructure. A majority of NATO’s members are also deeply connected both politically and economically through the European Union.[v] In the long term, a NATO without the United States may not only be feasible, but desirable. However, these rosy structural facts belie a more troublingly reality in NATO’s immediate future.
When looking at NATO’s short-term viability, the picture is far less positive without the substantial commitment of the United States. The most obvious item of concern if the US were to leave or moderate its commitment to NATO in the short term would be sheer manpower. In 2016, the alliance had a combined troop strength of around 3.1 million active duty personnel. Without the United States, that immediately drops by nearly half to somewhere below 1.9 million personnel.[vi] This ignores thousands of pieces of military equipment that would no longer support NATO, including armored vehicles, aircraft, and ships. Granted, Russia—the most prominent threat to NATO—has significantly cut down its active duty forces in recent years, estimated at just over 900,000 active duty personnel in 2016.[vii] However, the exact number of reservists Russia has at its disposal is unknown, and could be anywhere from 2 to 20 million personnel depending on the scale of a call up.[viii] While NATO forces may have an advantage in training, equipment, and organization, past a certain point quantity surpasses quality. Russia has also been increasing efforts to update its military arsenal, purchasing new weapons and equipment to close that gap as well.[ix]
The more important question, however, may be who would assume the burden of leadership for the alliance in the absence of the United States. Among the most influential of NATO’s members, there is no obvious candidate to take the lead if the United States were to step aside, and all the obvious candidates face their own significant political issues at home and abroad. The United Kingdom’s relationship with continental Europe has been strained in the aftermath of its vote to leave the EU. Its relationship will be further tested in the months and years to come as that process plays out.[x] Germany’s President-elect, former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has broken with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition with a more conciliatory tone towards Russia. He has criticized NATO policies on sanctions and military exercises.[xi] Meanwhile, France remains in a constant state of high alert following a string of terrorist attacks over the past several years—a threat it is not alone in facing—with new plots being uncovered and thwarted in February and troops remaining deployed on the streets.[xii]
These existing political issues are aggravated by the fact that the UK, Germany, and France all face populist or nationalist surges in their domestic politics, a trend seen across Europe. The UK Independence Party played an instrumental role in Britain’s decision to leave the EU. National Front candidate Marine Le Pen is highly likely to make it to the second round of the French presidential election this year. The Alternative for Germany party of Frauke Petry and Jorg Meuthen seems poised to gain its first seats in the Bundestag following elections this fall. Among a laundry list of controversial policy positions, these parties have tended to either have highly critical views of NATO, close ties to Russia, or both.[xiii] While the United States is obviously not without its own domestic political issues, the relative size, power, and strength of its institutions all put it in a better position to simultaneously deal with such issues and wrangle NATO at the same time. It is questionable if Britain, France, or Germany would be able to do the same if the mantle of leadership fell upon them.
If the United States were to leave NATO in the next four years, even if the alliance were not to collapse immediately, the ensuring vacuum would call into question its short-term survivability. But even if President Trump does not truly plan to leave NATO, the longer the doubt over continued US participation, the greater damage this uncertainty creates. It encourages political forces within member states not consistent with NATO’s values and it may encourage potential adversaries to undertake provocative and aggressive actions. It is critical that President Trump be more consistent and clear in voicing his desire to remain in the alliance, and frame whatever criticisms he has of NATO—which are not baseless—in the context of improving the alliance. It is also critically important that the President strive to set a better domestic political example for NATO allies as they face increasing levels of political instability and uncertainty of their own. More than his own approval ratings may be riding on his ability to be a unifying political figure.
[i] Krishnadev Calamur, “NATO Shmato?,” The Atlantic, July 21, 2016, accessed March 8, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2016/07/trump-nato/492341/; Juliet Eilperin and Greg Jaffe, “Meeting the press for first time since Trump’s win, Obama says president-elect is committed to NATO,” Washington Post, November 14, 2016, accessed March 8, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/meeting-the-press-for-first-time-since-trumps-win-obama-says-new-president-is-committed-to-nato/2016/11/14/b90dbf7c-aa92-11e6-a31b4b6397e625d0_story.html?utm_term=.5c1d5c723438.4b6397e625d0_story.html?utm_term=.6dc3cb89e563.
[ii] “Trump worries Nato with ‘obsolete’ comment,” BBC, January 16, 2017, accessed March 8, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38635181; http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/06/politics/trump-nato-centcom/
[iii] The World Factbook, accessed March 8, 2017, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/.
[iv] “World Economic Outlook Database April 2016,” International Monetary Fund, July 19, 2016, , accessed March 9, 2017, http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2016/01/weodata/index.aspx.
[v] “Relations with the European Union,” NATO, January 27, 2017, accessed March 13, 2017, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_49217.htm.
[vi] NATO, Public Diplomacy Division, “Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries (2009-2016),” news release, March 13, 2017, Defence Expenditure of NATO Countries (2009-2016), accessed March 13, 2017, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_142152.htm.
[vii] Gudrun Persson et al., “Russian Military Capability in a Ten-Year Perspective 2016,” Swedish Defence Research Agency, December 8, 2016, accessed March 13, 2017, https://www.foi.se/rapportsammanfattning?reportNo=FOI-R–4326–SE.
[viii] International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2014 (London, UK: Routledge, 2014), 180-192.
[ix] Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russian military gets massive upgrade amid tensions from the West,” Toronto Star, February 22, 2017, accessed March 12, 2017, https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2017/02/22/russia-military-gets-massive-upgrade-amid-tensions-from-the-west.html.
[x] Stefano Stefanini, “How Brexit hurts NATO,” POLITICO, February 17, 2017, accessed March 12, 2017, http://www.politico.eu/article/how-brexit-hurts-nato-member-countries-jens-stoltenberg-david-cameron/.
[xi] “Germany’s Steinmeier favors gradual phasing-out of Russia sanctions,” Reuters, June 19, 2016, accessed March 12, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-germany-steinmeier-idUSKCN0Z50AI.
[xii] Kim Hjelmgaard, “France thwarts suspected new terror attack,” USA Today, February 10, 2017, accessed March 12, 2017, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2017/02/10/france-thwarts-suspected-new-terror-attack/97734330/; “Louvre attack: French soldier shoots machete-wielding man,” BBC, February 03, 2017, accessed March 12, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-38853841.
[xiii] Elizabeth Bryant, “Le Pen blasts EU, NATO, praises Trump | News | DW.COM | 24.02.2017,” Deutsche Welle, February 24, 2017, accessed March 12, 2017, http://www.dw.com/en/le-pen-blasts-eu-nato-praises-trump/a-37696454; “Leader of Germany’s far-right party meets Putin allies in Moscow,” Reuters, February 21, 2017, accessed March 12, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-election-afd-idUSKBN16012C.