On the campaign trail, Donald Trump was unsparing in his disparagement of U.S. alliances. In a word, allies were freeloaders—complacent in their reliance on the United States to provide them security, contributing nothing like their “fair share” of the cost of their defense, and lavishing the dividend on their domestic needs. Maybe that was acceptable when they were flat on their backs after a war that left the United States on top, but now that they are prospering and the United States has pressing needs of its own, it’s time for the allies to pay up. He also mused about NATO being “obsolete.”
This was alarming (to put it mildly) to most American foreign-policy specialists—to say nothing of the reaction of U.S. allies. The postwar alliance structure in Europe has been the backbone of security on a continent where the United States fought two wars. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization underpinned the postwar revival of Western Europe and subsequently, after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the demise of the Soviet Union, of Central and Eastern Europe. The relevance of the alliance has gained renewed salience with Russia’s aggression against its neighbors, first in Georgia in 2008, then in Ukraine in 2014.
At the heart of the alliance is Article 5 of the Washington Treaty of 1949—the commitment of each member to regard an armed attack on any as an attack on all. In practical terms, the meaning of Article 5 is that American power provides a security guarantee for Europe, a commitment upheld and explicitly reiterated by U.S. presidents since Harry S. Truman. The treaty is binding, yet equally in practical terms, it is the American president whose commander-in-chief powers will dictate the response of the U.S. military to any attack—and by extension, the sincerity of his commitment determines the deterrent value of Article 5 against potential aggressors. Would a President Trump abrogate the U.S. commitment? Or hold it hostage to defense-spending increases by allies—perhaps even by demanding the payment of a much larger past-due bill, as the candidate suggested on at least one occasion?
In Asia, the biggest long-term challenge is the rise of China; the U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines (as well as the more complicated commitment enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act) represent the underpinning of Pacific security. Would this, too, be up for grabs under Trump? Was “America First” shorthand for an isolationist retooling of U.S. relations with the rest of the world? The short answer to these questions turns out to be no. Trump has no apparent intention to do away with U.S. alliance relationships, however cumbersome and expensive he perceives them to be, and he evinces no intention to try to replace the postwar security architecture with something new and different, whatever that might be. So what happened? Were his many critics sounding the alarm therefore wrong about his intentions? Did he change his mind? Is the question of alliances now settled? Since Trump has taken office, alliance policy seems to have operated on two tracks within the U.S. government. The first track is the president’s own. He has continued to warn allies that they need to pay up—though his demands have moderated considerably, coalescing around the 2 percent of GDP that allies have pledged to spend on defense (though very few do). And although he has reaffirmed the U.S. Article 5 commitment on some occasions, on others when it would have been appropriate for him to do so, he has declined, apparently intentionally. Still, he has never repudiated the commitment. There seem to be two possibilities here: either a deliberate exercise in ambiguity, or incompetence and confusion of the kind his critics have long diagnosed.
I think the evidence points distinctly toward the former. That evidence is the second track of policy within the government. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis—as well as officials junior to them—have been on something close to a nonstop reassurance tour of U.S. allies and partners since the beginning of the administration. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has joined the chorus since he stepped in to replace the ousted Michael Flynn. Their message has been unambiguous: The United States stands by its security and alliance commitments, and allies must contribute more to collective defense. True, some allies continue to harbor doubts centered on the persona of Trump. Yet—therefore?—many are moving to spend more on defense.
Now, the simple fact is that Trump could order his Cabinet members and senior staff to desist from repeating the first half of their message—the reassurance. Trump might have had some resignations to cope with, but it is well within his power to issue such an edict, and he hasn’t done so. The most likely reason he hasn’t is that he has concluded that too much is riding on these alliances. To continue in this speculative vein, what Trump knew to be true about U.S. allies during the campaign season was that they weren’t contributing enough; that’s a message that Washington has been sending with little effect for decades. What he didn’t know on the campaign trail and has since determined is how central these alliances are to U.S. national security. U.S. alliances aren’t quite so fragile as some feared. The case for them, competently made by the likes of Mattis, must be compelling, including to the skeptic in chief.
It’s here that we may be getting a little lesson in the cunning of history. From his skeptical premise, Trump sparked a very broad debate over alliances. Senior officials of his administration have probably devoted more time and energy to making the public case for NATO and our Pacific alliances during his first 10 months in office than their predecessors did in the previous 10 years. The latter had taken the utility of alliances to U.S. national security as a given.
All this attention has had an effect on public opinion. But the effect has not been, as many feared, a groundswell of support for isolationist or anti-alliance sentiment. Just the opposite. For the past three years, the Chicago Council Survey has asked, “How effective do you think [maintaining effective alliances is] to achieving the foreign-policy goals of the United States?” In 2015, 32 percent of all respondents responded “very effective.” In 2016, the figure was 40 percent. In 2017? Forty-nine percent. Specifically on NATO, 69 percent say the alliance is “essential” to U.S. security, a slight increase from 65 percent in 2016 and well above the 57 percent who said the same when the Chicago Council first asked the question in 2002.
For the first time in the history of the survey, a majority of Americans, 52 percent, say they would support “the use of U.S. troops…if Russia invades a NATO ally like Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia.” The Trump administration has had little to say about the Russian threat to the Baltics but a great deal to say about the danger of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program. A year ago, 47 percent said they would favor “the use of U.S. troops…if North Korea invaded South Korea.” That was the view of 26 percent of Americans in 1990. Today, it’s what 62 percent think.
Finally, on the question of allies paying up, the survey asked which comes closer to the respondent’s views: “The United States should encourage greater allied defense spending through persuasion and diplomatic means” or “The United States should withhold its commitment to defend NATO members” until they actually spend more. Overall, 59 percent said persuasion and diplomacy; 38 percent (including 51 percent of Republicans) would put Article 5 at risk. Maybe I’m hearing things, but that sounds to me more like a warning to our allies to take seriously American insistence that they spend more on defense starting now than it does an abrogation of the commitments at the center of U.S. national-security strategy for 70 years.