A Donald Trump presidency could change the status quo of American participation in the NATO if his campaign statements are to be believed.
The NATO has always been driven by US security ambitions, whether the Alliance will ever admit it or not. Washington politics have had a large impact on how things play out in Brussels right from the conception of the organisation. Once again, there might be a paradigm shift coming in the way the US looks at the NATO, which will undoubtedly change the dynamics at Boulevard Leopold, the NATO Headquarters.
A Donald Trump presidency could change the status quo of American participation in the NATO if his campaign statements are to be believed. Article 5 of the NATO Charter, containing the guarantee of collective self-defence, is the cornerstone of the Alliance, something Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, questioned without hesitation. This has not been the first time that Trump has doubted the viability or effectiveness of a NATO deterrent to several players further east.
Trump was adamant that the US will only support Allies that carry their own weight and meet obligations to the US in an interview with The New York Times. Now whether these obligations mean meeting standards set by the NATO for defence expenditure, or contributions to the NATO both monetary as well as in terms of troops, or do these obligations refer to the only time Article 5 of the NATO charter was actually implemented, ironically enough by the US itself. Trump claims that the likes of Henry Kissinger have advised him on foreign policy, something that does not appear to be seeping into his statements. While pragmatists do believe he will not take up such a harsh stance when in office, the speculation itself is the fuel that Russia needs for its actions.
The relationship that Trump and Russian President Putin share is no secret. Trump holds Putin in extremely high regard as a leader and is in awe of the respect Putin commands in Russia. When asked particularly about whether he would follow the sanctions policy against Russia once in the White House, he was clear that his regime would look to remove economic barriers to working with Russia, something that will worry several European nations and also give a voice to advocates of such a policy in Germany and France, leading to a possible change in the NATO’s stance. According to him, nations surrounding Ukraine have not expressed as much concern as has the US, a view that is clearly uninformed and dangerous to the situation in the Baltics as well.
In 2015, the US spent a little under 600 million dollars on the NATO and NATO-related activities and, to be fair, have committed over 2.4 billion dollars to build military infrastructure in the Baltics alone. However, the spending by the US on NATO has been falling every year since 2009 when they spent approximately 775 million dollars. Traditional allies, UK and Italy, have both reduced funding for the NATO over the last three years while Germany and France have kept their funding almost constant over the same period. The three Baltic countries, however, have shown a steady increase in NATO spending over a time period where most other Allies cut theirs down.
NATO itself believes that the Baltic nations should not be required to meet the standards of contribution set for other NATO Allies and instead should focus on strengthening territorial security. Despite this, Estonia and Poland have met the contribution standards of the NATO in 2016 so far, contributing over two percent of their GDPs to the NATO, while Latvia and Lithuania have shown commitment to the same by bringing theirs up to approximately 1.5% each. Expenditure on defence as a part of GDP has also increased significantly in the Baltic states and there has been an increase in terms of committing equipment to the NATO over the last three years as well, a figure that has stagnated with France, Germany and Italy. Poland decided to house the American-built Ballistic Missile Defense System on Polish territory as well despite there being populist protests regarding the same within the country.
The only time Article 5 was implemented, after 9/11 by the US, all three Baltic nations committed troops to the NATO campaign in Iraq and participated in the NATO-led ISAF mission in Afghanistan as well. Notably, the Baltic countries have partnered with USA on cyber security and have cooperated closely to reduce vulnerabilities in this regard. The vital Northern Distribution Network to ISAF forces in Afghanistan runs through Latvia, and Latvia has shouldered the responsibility of ensuring it’s functioning effectively. Recently Lithuania reintroduced conscription in the military to ensure territorial security, a clear indication that they are committed to the security of the Baltics just as much as the NATO is.
If his statements are to be taken at face value, Trump seems to be alarmingly misinformed about the NATO. The feasibility of a collective security organisation, especially the one as historically significant as the NATO, cannot be evaluated through an accounting sheet alone. The US and the NATO knew they would not have equal participation when they decided to follow an open door expansionist policy eastward, yet they saw the prudent gains to be made, something Trump needs to appreciate. A narrative of this kind will hurt the situation in the Baltics to a large extent, as it is one that does involve the people in those countries as well. As much as Trump would like to partner with Russia on various fronts, he cannot ignore Russian expansionist tendencies simply for the economic gains to be made. Somewhere along the line, the hope is that Trump realises an “America First” policy does mean protecting the interest of their close knit allies across the world.
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