Will Trump end NATO as we know it?

by Joshua Taggart, Junior Consultant

With the increasing likelihood that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee to face Joe Biden in this year’s Presidential election, many are anticipating what the return of Trump will mean for American foreign policy, particularly in the current context of Ukraine, Gaza and Taiwan.

Of particular importance are Trump’s recent comments on NATO. In early February, during a speech in South Carolina, Trump stated that countries which didn’t meet the defence spending target of 2 percent of GDP per year wouldn’t receive protection from the United States, and he encouraged Russia to ‘do whatever the hell they want’ to those who didn’t contribute their fair share to the bloc. Despite being widely criticised for these comments, Trump doubled down in subsequent days, stating: “nobody’s paying their bills” and delivering a clear warning to underpaying NATO members: “I’m not going to protect you”.

So, what does this mean for the future of NATO if Trump re-enters the White House? Can NATO exist in its current form without Article 5 - which commits each member of NATO to an agreement that an attack on one member state is an attack on them all - and still be considered a military alliance?

Many would argue that the fact Article 5 has never been triggered is the greatest proof of its success, and that it has been a major contributing factor to the unprecedented peace in our time (along with nuclear armament proliferation raising the stakes of conflict to apocalyptic levels). Article 5 has been such a success that even Russia sought to copy it through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) with Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 2002. However, others perceive NATO as a weak alliance, propped up by US defence spending, which has little more than a bark to match its undeniably American bite.

Could NATO exist without Article 5? It’s obvious that there are other Articles of the North Atlantic Treaty, ranging from a general commitment to peacefully resolving conflict where possible (Article 1) to cooperation on emergency situations and joint military matters (Article 4) and the creation of the North Atlantic Council (Article 9).

However, Article 5 as a deterrent against foreign aggression is the lynchpin of the alliance and would irreversibly alter both the commitment to and the importance of NATO as a whole. Without the firm commitment that all other members will join the defence efforts of a member state, the consequences are twofold. Firstly, member states will be less likely to join NATO, as the newest members such as Finland and Sweden would join to benefit from the protection provided by other members. Secondly, it would greatly undermine the existing framework from a legally binding and highly effective deterrent to a loose, informal agreement to collaborate on security matters.

The greatest consequence would undoubtedly be the emboldening of potential aggressors, from Russia to Iran, who have already ramped up their operations even with Article 5 still in place. Without a legally binding commitment to intervene, countries will be far less likely to entangle themselves in new conflicts – the multiple billions being spent in Ukraine warding off Russian aggression are the most prominent warning of how costly and damaging a conflict can be. Russian ‘troll farms’ committing cyberattacks and election fraud alongside Iranian proxy groups and others will undoubtedly benefit from the loss of NATO’s internal cohesion.

Member countries have indeed stepped up their spending, with 18 of the 31 member countries on track to meet their pledge of contributing at least 2 percent of their GDP to defence and military budgets. This isn’t in response to Trump’s threat to pull out of America’s commitments to Article 5, but a reflection of the uncertainty and conflict of the world. However, it’s difficult to judge whether this increase in spending will be enough to placate a Trump White House from taking drastic measures upon his first 100 days back in office. 

Whether Trump is being ‘serious but not literal,’ in the words of Republican Senator Marco Rubio, about abandoning NATO allies is another matter entirely. It's highly unlikely that the GOP machinery of a Trump White House would go so far as to allow Trump to withdraw the United States from NATO as a whole – to do so would be an unprecedented gamble on the fate of the ‘Free World’. But if traditional allies cannot rely upon the USA, the increasingly multilateral world upon which analysts love to pontificate is less of a risk and more of an inevitability.

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