Abandoning NATO “would reverse decades of bipartisan American leadership and send a dangerous signal to friend and foe alike” – and this is exactly what will happen, Hillary Clinton warned, “if Mr. Trump gets his way”.
Since that speech in 2016, we’ve heard the warning time and time again. It came most recently after Trump’s first NATO meeting, when The New York Times editorial board suggested that “the United States might not defend [NATO] allies under attack” – a concern echoed by pundits like Zack Beauchamp, Josh Marshall, and Ned Resnikoff, among others. Among the liberal commentariat, at least, the consensus is clear: Trump pulling out of NATO and reneging on our military obligations under Article 5 is an actual possibility that could really, actually happen.
This is madness. Donald Trump is not going to abandon NATO. If Donald Trump wanted to abandon NATO, his advisors would talk him out of it. If Donald Trump tried to abandon NATO, he would be impeached almost immediately, by a bipartisan vote. The US is far too invested in NATO for any president to who does not want a revolt on his hands to sever ties.
“We need to look at the facts”
The reasons for this aren’t particularly mysterious. As the New York Times laid out earlier this year, What the U.S. Gets for Defending Its Allies and Interests Abroad is substantial: trillions of dollars in trade and uninhibited access to energy supplies and other resources. Simply maintaining NATO with arms sales is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the profits go to companies with armies of lobbyists and powerful PACs.
That’s why Trump won’t even try to leave NATO. It’s why he’s not even inclined to, Elliott Abrams writes in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs:
…after repeatedly disparaging NATO, Trump backtracked…The alliance, Trump now declared, was “no longer obsolete.”…it is already clear that this is not a revolutionary administration. The broad lines of its policy fit easily within those of the last few decades…the Trump era will be marked more by increasing adherence to traditional U.S. foreign policy positions than by ever-larger deviations.
Abrams is a Republican, but he’s no isolationist – he’s a neoconservative hawk, and if he saw any danger of Trump abandoning NATO, he’d be among the first to panic. Similarly, consider how someone on NATO’s front line – Kersti Kaljulaid, the President of Estonia – responds to the usual alarmist hyperbole from Sarah Kendzior:
“In the new administration’s steps, I see not a single U-turn,” said Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid, referring to Washington’s historical defense of Baltic states.
She crisply and dryly upbraided a couple of American panelists including writer Sarah Kendzior, who warned Baltic nations to be “wary” of a president “with obvious autocratic leanings…who is not rational, who is destructive.”
“When we’re done with synchronizing all our gossip about the new administration, then we need to look at the facts,” [Kaljulaid] said.
Business as usual
As it turns out, the facts of Trump’s military don’t much resemble his campaign rhetoric. Abrams highlights Trump’s reversal on Syria, but the evolution of his military budget is even more instructive.
As recently as February, Trump promised a “historic” increase in military spending, and on the campaign trail he made even more elaborate promises: for example, calling for a 350 ship Navy. But in his first actual budget, Trump simply continued Obama-levels of spending. And in a revealing article for The Hill, multiple sources outlined a budgeting process that barely involved Trump at all:
There is also wide speculation that the defense plan is the work of White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney…Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said it’s unlikely Trump even knows the details of his defense request or the ways it does not follow through on his promises.
Kendzior may imagine Trump as some kind of tyrannical autocrat, but autocrats don’t delegate major defense decisions out to accountants and second-tier wonks. In fact, despite his role as Commander-in-Chief, Trump has now found himself entangled in one of the greatest bureaucracies the world has ever known: the military-industrial complex of 21st century America. He is now utterly reliant on a massive apparatus of advisers, managers, and political operatives to guide and enact his decisions, and as Abrams observes, “Trump’s national security team embodies ‘the Establishment’ as much as John F. Kennedy’s or Dwight Eisenhower’s did.”
Reporting in Politico gives a hint as to how this dynamic is playing out with respect to NATO. When Trump neglected to affirm America’s commitment to Article 5 in a recent speech, Brookings Institution president Strobe Talbott predicted “a very dangerous and damaging effect” – and in dire tones, Politico lays out “the ripple effects from the Trump NATO speech-that-wasn’t”:
[a] rift…during the private dinner…unusually frank criticisms…Trump’s rebuffed national security leaders…left in increasingly awkward positions…
Despite these dinner feuds and frank critiques, however, Defense Secretary James Mattis still managed to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue defense summit in Singapore. Mattis is just one of multiple pro-NATO voices in the administration, Politico notes, and despite Trump’s ongoing bluster, it appears that he and everyone else are still proceeding with business as usual.