Donald Trump’s presidential campaign challenges an idea that has been uncontested by both major parties since the conclusion of the Second World War. By attacking US commitments to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its non-NATO allies Trump has broken with a traditional bipartisan commitment to conventional liberal internationalism and the norms associated with it. Trump’s divergence from this pattern is driven by two factors, with the first informing his conception of the second. Trump fundamentally rejects the embedded multilateralism constructed by the United States since 1945; a system devised by American liberal internationalists who seized the opportunity to utilize their country’s financial and military power to rebuild a new world order from the ashes based on American political and economic vision. NATO was an integral piece of puzzle constructed by world leaders at Bretton Woods but Trump now claims that the alliance was built by an America that no longer exists. That NATO was designed within a bipolar international system, with the intention of meeting a threat that dissolved alongside the USSR renders NATO “obsolete.” Trump has attempted to buttress his ideological divergence by presenting an economic argument for why the United States should either re-negotiate or, failing that, walk away from its traditional defence commitments due to its staggering debt crisis. Trump’s ostensible understanding of NATO, and multilateralism as a whole, is dangerous for geo-political and economic reasons, and a Trump presidency that acts on this rhetoric would pose a grave threat to international peace and global finance.
NATO was, and continues to be, far more than an alliance; it is a political agreement between states to promote democratic values and encourage consultation and cooperation on defence and security issues. The organization's membership requirements and policies are intimately tied to the core concepts of liberal internationalism as NATO has committed itself to: democratic values (political liberalism), free-trade (economic liberalism), multilateral cooperation, and a rule-based international society that respects sovereignty and human rights. The World Wars taught the architects of NATO that peace is not a natural condition but one that must be constructed; we would be remiss to think that this paradigm is antiquated. Peace is contingent upon the creation of international organizations to mitigate international anarchy. Just as peace is enforced in domestic society, the international domain demands a system of regulation for coping with disputes, which includes an international policing force that could be mobilized if nonviolent conflict resolution failed.
NATO has actively defended this position since 1995 through its operations in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya and its anti-piracy activities.
Trump is inconsistent in his ideology; the domestic policies he has alluded to on the campaign trail have placed a higher value on order and authority and highlight his willingness to sacrifice the liberty of the individual for the stability of the “community.” He has displayed an unwillingness to recognize that his fellow citizens are equal before the law, especially with regards to religious toleration. Recently, he has brashly disregarded the tradition of nonpartisan rule of law. When his fitful ideas turn to the international realm, they translate into advocating for trade wars, the threat of abandoning allies, and the pledge to violate international law. From this standpoint, NATO is simply an institution at Trump’s disposal, one that can allow him to impose American order and authority in the North Atlantic. One of his primary critiques of the organization, expressed inan interview with the New York Times, was that “ NATO is unfair” to the United States “because it really helps [other members] more so than the United States, and we pay a disproportionate share.” In his first debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump attempted to reinforce this victim narrative by pronouncing that the U.S. pays “approximately 73 percent of the cost of NATO.” This statistic is, predictably, a fabrication as America’s contribution to NATO’s common fund budget is actually around 22 percent; however, in Trump’s imagination NATO members are committed “by treaty and contract” to be paying more for American protection. The treaty makes no such pledge, just a commitment by each ally to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” This factual discrepancy exists because NATO was not designed to be an extortion racket that could supplement America’s balance of payments. This disparity is illuminated when one considers the position Trump took on the Baltic States when confronted by David E. Sanger of the New York Times:
SANGER: I was just in the Baltic States. They are very concerned obviously about this new Russian activism, they are seeing submarines off their coasts, they are seeing airplanes they haven’t seen since the Cold War coming, bombers doing test runs. If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?
TRUMP: I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do. I have a serious chance of becoming president and I’m not like Obama, that every time they send some troops into Iraq or anyplace else, he has a news conference to announce it.
SANGER: They are NATO members, and we are treaty-obligated ——
TRUMP: We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.
SANGER: That’s true, but we are treaty-obligated under NATO, forget the bills part.
TRUMP: You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.
SANGER: My point here is, Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations ——
TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.
In this exchange Trump has highlighted his belief that NATO members are tributary states, subordinate to American power and influence. For starters, this stance is offly ironic coming from a candidate that has bragged about his history of tax avoidance; but this is the kind of cognitive dissonance the public has been forced to endure over the course of this campaign. Nevertheless, Trump seems to regard NATO as a simple goods for services transaction, but in doing so, he disregards the immeasurable political and financial benefits that NATO provides the U.S. and the world. The degree and benefits of globalization that we, and Trump himself, have enjoyed during the Pax Americana is directly attributable to NATO.
For more than 60 years, this institution has been a pillar of stability and security. The commitment to collective defence by its member-states has been influential in the maintenance of a secure environment that has created the conditions necessary for economic growth. Returning to Sanger’s question of Baltic security, Trump fails to recognize that NATO’s security umbrella establishes a climate in which economic openness and cooperation can flourish and promote the growth and stability of economies in transition. Since their invitation to join NATO in 2002, and from their acceptance in 2004 onwards, the economies of the Baltics have grown substantially - as can be seen in the graph below.
These net economic gains have not only benefited Baltic peoples, but the economy of the European Union (the largest trading partner of the U.S.), and the global economy as a whole. This link between NATO membership and prosperity is reinforced if one analyzes Europe’s economy with a wider lens, by comparing the stark post-Cold War differences in per capita GDP between former Warsaw Pact members and European Soviet Socialist Republics that joined NATO ($25.18K USD) to those whose security remains in a state of flux ($11.1K USD) . By posturing that Baltic sovereignty is no longer guaranteed by the U.S. -meaning that under a Trump presidency America shall not unconditionally abide by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty - he undermines the security and financial vitality of all NATO member states. This guarantee has been a norm that the American and European economy has taken for granted for the past 67 years.
Security and economic well-being are indivisible. NATO protects critical infrastructure and economic lifelines of commerce, trade and investment. It assures the passage of vital energy and other resources, as well as indispensable economic and strategic communications. The bombast that Trump has directed at NATO and other elements of liberal internationalism threaten the security that will continue to ensure stability and growth.