Transatlantic Take

How Real is American Disenchantment with NATO?

October 14, 2016

WASHINGTON - An embittered U.S. elections cycle full of attention-grabbing headlines has cast a large shadow across the Atlantic. As the campaign rhetoric heats up, U.S. allies are collectively holding their breath, waiting to see what the future of U.S. global engagement and its commitment to existing alliance structures might look like.

With the breadth and depth of the challenges before it, Europe will be the first to admit the indispensable role that the United States plays in its own security. Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in early 2014 and its continued destabilization of the Donbas have fundamentally altered the modern perception of power and conflict in Europe. The knock-on effects of the Syrian Civil War to the South continue to create enormous challenges for European powers through mass refugee migration and a renewed threat of terrorism at home. And internally, the U.K.’s pending exit from the EU has only created more questions about the political cohesion of Europe, including its security and defense efforts.

As November draws closer, the shots volleyed from Donald Trump’s campaign continue to cause anxiety for NATO’s European allies. Though Trump has tried to dial back his rhetoric, his initial comments that NATO is “obsolete” and contending that he would have no problem seeing it “break up” have NATO partners fretting about the future of the U.S. commitment. There is hope that institutions and agreements can weather the building storm, but Trump’s apparent disregard for the Euroatlantic pillar of the U.S. global security posture could have wide ranging implications. Combined with the power of the president to set the U.S. foreign policy agenda, it is not hard to imagine how U.S. engagement in Europe (and around the globe) could significantly change. No one really knows where Trump’s policy will end up, but his statements about U.S. allies and the NATO Alliance should be taken at face value.

Extremes of rhetoric aside, the grievances about burden sharing and the U.S. role abroad are real. European allies must not dismiss the chord that this year’s electoral politics have struck with segments of the U.S. population. Following the combat mission in Afghanistan, war in Iraq, and the financial crisis in 2008, there is limited appetite for conversations encouraging U.S. global responsibility and global commitments. The U.S. presidential campaign has shown that candidates are rewarded by focusing attention inward at policies that try to shut out or isolate global realities (trade, foreign policy, et al.). A Pew Research Center Poll earlier this year showed that a majority of Americans are simply wary of global engagement. The NATO Alliance has seemingly been swept up in this weariness of a global role.  

However, public opinion clearly differentiates between a hesitancy of global engagement and the importance of a long-held alliance like NATO. The same Pew Research Survey found that 77% of the American public believes that membership in NATO is a good thing, and even among Trump’s targeted Republican base, only 30% claimed that NATO is bad for the United States. A majority of respondents in a 2015 survey took their support further, indicating that the United States should confront Russia with military force if it attacked a NATO ally – reinforcing their support of Article V. While globalization-wary rhetoric may be active in the campaign, its specific application to NATO is less convincing. That said, it is certainly possible that contagion could affect NATO more as it continues. U.S. criticisms of Euroatlantic partners’ defense and security efforts are, of course, not new. In the late 1990s, U.S. Senator John McCain warned about the erosion of American popular support for NATO if it did not improve its burden sharing. Recently, President Obama bluntly called some of America’s European partners “free riders.” Even talking about the bipartisan habit of complaining about European defense spending levels and burden sharing in NATO is cliché at this point.

If anything is to be taken from the current discourse in U.S. campaign politics, it is that future U.S. administrations, as well as the American public, are likely to only expect more from U.S. allies and partners. This is particularly true for those who are both economically capable and “nearer to the threat.” If Europe is able to continue a trend of increasing defense spending and assuming greater leadership in the region, it will go a long way in assuaging U.S. concerns about shouldering too much of the burden, or at least begin to remove that long-standing element from the discourse.

Photo credit: Department of Defense