Brookings experts on the challenges facing NATO

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he holds a news conference after participating in the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman - RC1985E95E90

President Trump’s harsh words toward members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ahead of the 2018 NATO summit in Brussels worried defenders of the alliance. In particular, Trump called out other member countries for failing to spend two percent of their GDP on defense (a target agreed to in 2014 and to achieve by 2024).

Although Trump stated his commitment to the alliance as he left the summit, many Brookings experts have argued that the state of the NATO alliance is precarious and have offered recommendations for how to bolster it.

Trumpian foreign policy

Before the NATO Summit, Senior Fellow Robert Kagan described President Trump’s apparent disdain for international institutions and cooperation, contending: “Trump is not merely neglecting the liberal world order; he is milking it for narrow gain, rapidly destroying the trust and sense of common purpose that have held it together and prevented international chaos for seven decades.”

Afterward, Kagan wrote: “NATO has never been a self-operating machine that simply chugs ahead so long as it is left alone. Like the liberal world order of which it is the core, it requires constant tending, above all by the United States. And because it is a voluntary alliance of democratic peoples, it survives on a foundation of public support. That foundation has been cracking in recent years. This week was an opportunity to shore it up. Instead, Trump took a sledge-hammer to it, and quite deliberately.”

Stay tuned for Kagan’s new book, out this fall, “The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World.” For more on the future of U.S. foreign policy, read Senior Fellow Thomas Wright’s 2017 book, “All Measure Short of War: The contest for the 21st Century and the Future of American Power.”

The defense spending conundrum

Trump’s main complaint about NATO has to do with costs. Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon explains that, while the United States spends a higher percentage of its GDP on defense than any other NATO member, some of Trump’s specific arguments are inaccurate. For example, the real cost of stationing the 35,000 U.S. troops in Germany (instead of the United States) is near zero, O’Hanlon points out. In addition, basing these troops in Germany facilitates less expensive movement of U.S. troops and supplies to Syria, Qatar, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe.

Nonresident Senior Fellow Jeremy Shapiro argues, meanwhile, that “there is no satisfying Trump’s demands about European spending,” because those demands essentially amount to a roundabout attempt to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with Europe.

Senior Fellow Constanze Stelzenmüller adds that, while Trump may be right that Europeans must spend more on their own defense, Trump gets something “monumentally, tragically wrong … in his open contempt for representative democracy, republican constitutions, open societies, and a rules-based international order, and his admiration for autocrats and dictators.” She argues that this disagreement, more than any of the others, is the largest fault line in the NATO alliance.

Associate Fellow Will Moreland points out that there are now major divisions between the United States and other NATO members about the alliance’s strategy, and writes that Trump “has shown little evidence that he believes the United States fundamentally shares interests with its allies.” “So long as Washington pursues a narrowly defined agenda to which allies have minimal input,” he continues, “then European leaders have little reason to see their national interests as aligned with those of the United States. Without this shared map, toward what common challenges are they then to direct their increased spending?”

NATO’s democracy problem

Nonresident Fellow Torrey Taussig and German Marshall Fund Senior Fellow Jonathan Katz focus on the democratic backsliding that’s occurring within NATO member states. They analyze Russia’s troubling new closeness with Hungary and Turkey, the security implications of democratic decline, and distrust between allies and the damage it has on joint decisions, communications, and operations. The authors argue that NATO needs a new mechanism to hold members accountable on democratic principles and encourage Congress to pressure the Trump administration to advance certain foreign policy causes.

Senior Fellow Norman Eisen and Visiting Fellow James Kirchick, similarly, argue that NATO member governments are “gradually undermining their own democratic institutions, unraveling the common tie between members of an alliance ‘founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law,’ and thereby undercutting it as an effective guarantor of the ‘freedom and security of all its members.’”

Keep up with everything Brookings experts are saying about NATO, Europe, and the upcoming Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki.