NATO: A cornerstone of U.S. Policy

By: Christopher Cyr,Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Political Science for EKU Online

While American politics is often divisive, some issues have seen such bipartisan consensus that they are considered conventional wisdom in US policy. It is perhaps not surprising that, during an election where much of our conventional wisdom has been turned on its head, one of these issues would find its way into the limelight. Recently, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump questioned the US role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which has been a cornerstone of US policy for the past six decades. Formed in 1949, NATO includes the US, Canada, and much of Europe. According to Article 5 of the treaty, members promise to come to each other’s aid should one be attacked. This defensive alliance served to counter Soviet influence in Europe during the Cold War, and has provided a mechanism for US military intervention and peacekeeping operations in the post-Cold War era.

Both Democrats and Republicans have generally considered NATO to be an important part of their foreign policy.George W. Bush called it, “a necessary relationship,”[1] while Obama recently argued that, “in good times and bad, Europe can count on the United States – always.”[2] Trump turned this consensus on its head when he asserted that the US should reevaluate its obligations to NATO members, and only give aid to those that “fulfill their obligations to us.”[3] This means that the US would consider military aid on a case-by-case basis, rather than an automatic obligation under the NATO treaty.

Most foreign policy scholars were dismissive of Trump’s comments, placing them somewhere on a continuum between uninformed and dangerous. Defensive alliances, especially ones as large as NATO, serve to deter would be aggressors from invading other countries, lest they face an overwhelming coalition of militaries opposing their invasion. This deterrence helped turn Europe from the center point of the two most deadly wars in human history to one of the most peaceful regions of the world.

Alliances only deter aggression, however, if they are reliable. If would-be aggressor nations believe that other countries would not actually honor their alliance commitments, something that does happen in world politics (look at Italy during World War I, for example)[4], then they have no reason to fear overwhelming opposition to their invasion. By rejecting Article 5, Trump undermines the reliability, and thus the deterrent value, of NATO. This puts all members of NATO, even the ones that Trump ultimately would support, at risk.

While it is easy to argue against the specifics of Trump’s remarks, they do touch upon an important debate that US policymakers will likely have in the coming decades. Alliances do not last forever, and a time will come when Americans question whether an alliance born out of Cold War politics is still useful in a modern age. The outcome of this debate will likely depend how American voters and policymakers view the proper role of the US in world politics. Those arguing for a continued US presence will likely see NATO as an important framework for this, while those that would like to see disengagement will likely call for NATO commitments to be cut back, even if the alliance is altogether scraped.

Those arguing for disengagement will have an important advantage: the successes of overseas engagement tend to be quite while the failures tend to be prominent. After all, there is no shortage of examples of US interventions that did not go as planned. Most Americans, for instance, now view the wars in areas such as Afghanistan unfavorably[5]. These cases will likely lead many Americans to believe that overseas engagement creates more problems than it solves, and could lead to a fundamental revision of NATO.

Those making the case for continued commitment to NATO, on the other hand, will face more difficulty in making there case due to the nature of successful deterrence. It is impossible to measure how many wars the alliance prevented. When deterrence works, there is no war for the news to cover. We also cannot generally differentiate between cases where a country was deterred from invading another country due to defensive alliances, and cases where a country never had any desire to invade in the first place. As such, the successes of NATO are quieter than the failures. Because of this, proponents of NATO may have trouble making this case to the American public, and this may lead to continued popularity of politicians who question the bipartisan consensus that has guided US foreign policy for the past six decades.


[1]http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A44040-2005Feb22.html

[2]http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/world/europe/obama-at-his-final-nato-summit-meeting-acknowledges-challenges.html

[3]http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/21/us/politics/donald-trump-issues.html?_r=0

[4]http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/italy-declares-war-on-austria-hungary

[5]http://www.gallup.com/poll/116233/afghanistan.aspx

Published on August 01, 2016