NATO and Beyond: President Trump Revitalized Our Alliances

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 9, No. 1, January 2021

By William R. Hawkins

US President Donald Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend a meeting during the G20 Osaka Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. (Photo by Carl Court / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

The new NATO 2030: United for a New Era report shows how President Donald Trump has reinvigorated the West’s central international security alliance. It proclaims, “the main characteristic of the current security environment is the re-emergence of geopolitical competition – that is, the profusion and escalation of state-based rivalries and disputes over territory, resources, and values.” This reflects the 2018 National Defense Strategy issued by the U.S. Department of Defense which saw America “emerging from a period of strategic atrophy” into a world of “increased global disorder” where Great Power competition with Russia and China is the major challenge facing the country. By looking at the world as it is, President Trump sent a gale of fresh air into a becalmed foreign policy establishment on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.

The first three “main findings” of the NATO document deal with the “changes to the geostrategic environment (including both Russia and China)” which have occurred since its 2010 Strategic Concept. Though the report paid lip service to “the dual-track approach of deterrence and dialogue with Russia” to placate those member states (like Germany) who shy away from confrontation, the report’s message is strong. “The Alliance must respond to Russian threats and hostile actions in a politically united, determined, and coherent way, without a return to ‘business as usual’” says its second findings, advising “NATO should evolve the content of its dual-track strategy to ensure its continued effectiveness by raising the costs for Russian aggression.”

The third finding, however, is the most telling regarding U.S. influence. “NATO must devote much more time, political resources, and action to the security challenges posed by China – based on an assessment of its national capabilities, economic heft, and the stated ideological goals of its leaders….The Alliance should infuse the China challenge throughout existing structures and consider establishing a consultative body to discuss all aspects of Allies’ security interests vis-à-vis China.” This does not just revive NATO, it expands its reach on a global scale as the report notes in particular the expansion of Chinese influence in Africa. This lays the groundwork for NATO to become both a stronger and a more active alliance system at the end of President Trump’s term than it was four years ago.

Yet, the partisan argument remains that President Trump’s “nationalism” undermined NATO and American leadership around the world and bordered on isolationism. A recent Foreign Affairs essay by retired Marine Corps General and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, along with Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute and Jim Ellis and Joe Felter of the Hoover Institution expressed, “When President Joe Biden and his national security team begin to reevaluate U.S. foreign policy, we hope they will quickly revise the national security strategy to eliminate ‘America first’ from its contents, restoring in its place the commitment to cooperative security that has served the United States so well for decades.” The title of the essay is “Defense In Depth: Why U.S. Security Depends on Alliances—Now More Than Ever.” One would be hard pressed to dispute this title as a statement. What is disputable is the place of this essay in the broader false narrative that President Trump rejected alliance diplomacy. The facts on the ground are that President Trump strengthened existing U.S. alliances and expanded other alignments to leave a robust legacy for his successor.

The problem for critics seems to be the idea of national interest as the basis for policy as opposed to some imagined “higher” reference to “global order” or some such that would support a wider engagement. This is unrealistic. As the eminent historian of U.S. foreign policy Thomas A. Bailey wrote “Self-interest is the cement of alliances. The best alliances are based on mutuality of interest. When self-interest dissolves, the alliance disintegrates. And no alliance is dependable, especially among democratic nations, that does not enjoy broad popular support.”  President George W. Bush was also criticized for acting “unilaterally.” Yet, he put together impressive “coalitions of the willing” (what Bailey called ‘catchall alliances”) to get things done.

The first foreign policy act adopted only days after the Democrats won control of the U.S. House in the 2018 election was the NATO Support Act (H.R. 676), passed  on a bipartisan vote of 357-22. The bill states as policy “to reject any efforts to withdraw the United States from NATO.” The NATO Support Act was prompted by media reports that President Trump had discussed a U.S. withdrawal from NATO. These reports were taken out of context. The President’s message was that if the Europeans were not interested in a strong NATO, why should the U.S. care? The campaign worked; not to weaken NATO or “disrespect” its members, but to strengthen the capabilities of the alliance. At the following July summit, NATO pledged that its members really would increase defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024 as they had promised to do when pressed by President Barack Obama. President Trump reportedly told the NATO summit that he wanted an alliance increase to 4 percent of GDP to match the U.S. military buildup he was implementing. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg publicly “thanked him for his leadership on defense spending” stating that “Since President Trump took office, NATO allies across Europe and Canada have spent an additional $41 billion extra in U.S. dollars on defense.” Sweden, though not a NATO member, has increased its defense spending by 40 percent to bring it into line with the Alliance’s target.

These are not just numbers in a ledger. On Nov. 25 it was announced that the French Army will engage in a major exercise next April with the United Kingdom and the U.S. to test its readiness for high-intensity conflict. French President Emmanuel Macron knows that “The United States will only respect us as allies if we are earnest, if we are sovereign with respect to our defense.” On November 19, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced major increases in defense spending, declaring that “Reviving our armed forces is one pillar of the government’s ambition to safeguard Britain’s interests and values by strengthening our global influence, and reinforcing our ability to join the United States and our other allies to defend free and open societies.” NATO has clearly not been disrupted over the last four years. Nor has the U.S. pulled back from its role as an active participate in cooperative security.

While President Obama canceled plans to build missile defense systems in Poland because of Russian objections, President Trump revived the plan. Technological problems have delayed deployment so it will be interesting to see if President Biden backs away and gives Vladimir Putin a veto again. President Obama refused to provide arms to Ukraine to combat Russian-backed insurgents, but President Trump sent them. Moscow grabbed Crimea from Ukraine during the Obama administration. In response, President Trump has been sending Navy warships into the Black Sea to signal that we do not consider it to be a Russian lake. In 2018, the 2nd Fleet was reinstated in the North Atlantic, from which it can also cover the Baltic and the Arctic. President Obama had disbanded this fleet in 2011 because he did not see a Russian threat.

Naval moves of this sort have been most noteworthy in Asia where U.S. alliances and alignments have been expanding rapidly to meet the threat of a rising China. On election day, U.S. Marines and Japan’s new Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade practiced landing operations against island objectives. Beijing noted “The geography in the area is similar to that on the Diaoyu Islands” which China claims, but which Japan owns as the Senkaku Islands. While the exercise could be seen as practice for retaking the islands should China seize them, they could also be practice for taking the fabricated islands China has built in international waters to control the South China Sea. French and British warships have joined the U.S. and Asian allies in conducting freedom of navigation missions in the South China Sea. In December, Japan announced another increase in its defense budget with an emphasis on naval weapons.

On November 6, the U.S., India, Australia, and Japan (known as “the Quad”) launched the first phase of a joint air and naval exercise off the west coast of India. The second phase started on November 20. President Trump has worked hard to create the U.S.-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership; signing several important trade and security agreements with New Delhi and personally wooing Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Encouraged, New Delhi has reached out further. On Christmas, India and Vietnam started a joint “passage exercise” in the South China Sea. This was followed by a visit to South Korea by India’s Army Chief General M M Naravane for discussions on Chinese “aggressive posturing” in the South China Sea and expanding ties between the Indian and Korean defense industries.

Beijing has noticed this strategy to unite the major actors around what the U.S. now calls the Indo-Pacific theater. The media outlet of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) observed, “Given that the cooperation mechanism between the US, Japan, India and Australia is active in the region, Japan and Australia moving closer in defense will lead to greater imagination. An ‘Asian NATO’ has long been a vision pushed by Washington and followed by some US allies.” China has also a negative view to the original NATO, an article in the Communist Party paper Global Times claiming “NATO is seen as an outdated organization” that sees threats “out of “victim paranoia” but should instead “embrace foreign policy independence.”

NATO does not see itself as outdated as it looks to expand its diplomatic reach. Its 2030 report recommends “NATO should begin internal discussions about a possible future partnership with India.” The report stresses common values shared between the Western democracies and the world’s largest democracy, but there is also a reference to “managing the strategic and political implications of China’s rise.” France and India held their first joint naval patrol in March.

It makes strategic sense for NATO members to work with Asian states to build a global alignment with the U.S. as in the old Cold War when a new Cold War has emerged with the global alliance of Russia and China. In a December 28 phone call between Presidents Xi and Putin, the Chinese leader declared “Sino-Russian relations are not affected by changes in the international situation or interference by any other factors. Strengthening strategic cooperation between China and Russia can effectively resist any attempt to suppress and divide the two countries…China is willing to unswervingly develop the comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership between China and Russia in the new era.” Russian ambassador to China Andrey Denisov repeated this sentiment, saying “The two countries have entered the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination and no external factors could affect bilateral relations.”

A demonstration of this coordination had been given only days before when Chinese and Russian warplanes conducted an exercise near the Korean peninsula that triggered South Korea to scramble interceptors. The joint operation threatened disputed islands with Japan but could also be seen as continued support by Beijing and Moscow for the Pyongyang regime. Both countries have also held joint military exercises with Iran indicating a return to another Cold War practice of supporting rogue states with anti-Western ambitions. China Daily also cited President Xi’s use of the phrase “a community with a shared future for mankind” which is his code for Chinese global preeminence.

The actual record of President Trump’s four years is the building of stronger alliances and alignments in accord with America’s world-wide strategic interests. As the NATO report states, “the fundamental purpose of NATO is more demonstrably clear today than it has been for decades.” It was leadership from Washington that revived a sense of purpose in the Western alliance and expanded its vision. The question is what will President Biden build on this firm foundation?

On the same day at the Xi-Putin phone call, President-elect Biden stated, “As we compete with China and hold China’s government accountable for its abuses on trade, technology, human rights and other fronts, our position will be much stronger when we build coalitions of like-minded partners and allies….On any issue that matters to the US-China relationship – from pursuing a foreign policy for the middle class, including a trade and economic agenda that protects American workers, our intellectual property and the environment – to ensuring security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region, to championing human rights – we are stronger and more effective when we are flanked by nations that share our vision.” These words represent a major movement in thought since he served as Vice-President in the Obama administration where he was a voice for appeasement.

While it is too much to expect in this partisan era for Biden to acknowledge how much President Trump has revitalized America’s leadership (he continues to claim he will be “restoring” leadership and ‘rebuilding” foreign policy), if he continues the movement forward rather than fall back to the days when the Western alliance was moribund in a post-Cold War malaise, the outcome will be good for the country, its allies, and the stability of the international order.

William R. Hawkins is a former economics professor who served on the professional staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has written widely on international economics and national security issues for both professional and popular publications.