As the dust begins to settle on the result of the US presidency, Jonathan Maunders disentangles the reality from the rhetoric in Trump's nascent foreign policy
The duration and aftermath of the US presidential election has seen a dangerous habit develop across the left. Firstly, those, typically of the soft left, rightly disgusted by Trump’s vulgar steps into racism and homophobia fell into the trap of concentrating their fury so much on Trump that they’ve lost all objectivity with regards to Clinton, seemingly presenting her as the angelic should-have-been rather than the failed establishment war-hawk we know her to be. Similarly, others on the left, rightly opposed to Clinton and everything she stands for, have fallen into the trap of glossing over Trump’s glaring inadequacies, actively celebrating his win, a position that seems to be deeply hollow and flawed, as the often falsely-heralded Slavoj Žižek found when taken apart effortlessly by Mehdi Hasan recently.
This glossing over of Trump has been no more apparent than in regards to foreign policy. Clinton’s enormously pro-interventionist and anti-Putin credentials perhaps naturally drove some to assume that Trump, cast as her antithesis, could usher in an uncharted era of peace. In fact, throughout the election, he paid very little attention to foreign policy and made the odd vague comment about scaling back US influence in the Middle East, thawing relations with Putin and leaving Nato. Perhaps it is this that has led some on the left to believe Trump can be an unlikely bastion of peace in a world riding the roundabout of war.
A thawing of relations with Putin can only be seen as a positive given the west’s increasing push towards hostility and antagonism in relation to Russia over recent years. Only a few weeks ago, the apparently guaranteed election of Clinton appeared to pushing the world further towards conflict with Russia. However, the assertion that the US will leave Nato under a Trump presidency is one that seems to misunderstand both the nature of Trump and the nature of Nato.
It’s abundantly clear that Donald Trump is not wedded to the idea of Nato’s necessity in the way Clinton evidently is. However, this is a long way from suggesting that Trump intends to do away with the alliance entirely. Implying he would is overly simplistic and misreads his objections to Nato and the structure of the alliance itself.
Firstly, when Trump has vaguely talked about leaving Nato he has not done as part of an ideological stand against imperialism, but instead it formed part of his narrative of ‘making America great again.’ When presenting his scepticism of the alliance, Trump focussed on the vast contributions made by the US in terms of military spending and contrasted by the significantly lower contributions made by other members.
In the UK, we are used to seeing members of the government (and deplorably Clive Lewis) hail the country’s commitment to spending 2% of GDP on military spending, claiming that failure to do so would be letting down fellow Nato members. What these MPs fail to explain, beyond the empty patriotic rhetoric, is that very few members of the alliance are committing anywhere near the 2% that Theresa May and Michael Fallon hold so dear. In fact, while the US spends as much 3.61% of its GDP militarily, Germany, Italy and Canada’s contributions are closer to the 1% mark.
Trump argued on the campaign trail that the US should not rush to the aid of Nato members who haven’t made what he deems to be a fair contribution. Thus, when looked at as part of Trump’s patriotic narrative, it’s clear that his objections relate to the comparative gulf in the level contributions and does not form an ideological or principled opposition to the alliance per se.
Predictably, Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, has responded to Trump’s election victory by rallying Nato members to up their contributions, arguing that a wave of alliance members upping their military spending contributions could persuade the president to keep faith. Whether Stoltenberg is genuinely fearful of Trump or not, it has given the former ample opportunity to push for higher military spending from European nations. However, Germany could potentially dig its heels in, perhaps forcing Trump to demonstrate how attached he is to his previous ultimatum. Yet, given the u-turns Trump has already overseen months before he is inaugurated, it would appear nearly all his statements are up for auction.
The other assumption that has been made is that because Trump, at least superficially, seems to be on cordial terms with Putin and has said he wishes to thaw relations, Trump will automatically suspend Nato. There are essences of truth in that assumption but it’s been viewed and analysed in the wrong way.
While Nato was formed to oppose the Soviet Union and has been largely defined by its opposition and hostility towards the USSR and now Putin, it is an organisation that has continually evolved in its attempts to justify its own existence. Moreover, the two largest examples of this evolution have very little to do with this opposition. In fact, Nato’s decision to wade into Yugoslavia in the 90s was the answer to the identity crisis it endured during the fall of the USSR. After 9/11, Nato’s decision to plough into Afghanistan was a further example of this evolution, expanding the treaty organisation’s area of focus from Europe to the globe and it is most likely in this direction that Nato will refocus.
Nato may be largely defined by its hostility towards Russia and it may have spent recent years boiling up tensions and placing troops in Eastern European countries like a drunken teenager playing the board game Risk, but it will continue to evolve and mutate to seek legitimacy and affirmation. Trump has committed to defeating Isis and this is most likely where Nato will find purpose without the immediate target of Russia.
Even if Trump was inclined to detach the US from Nato, the treaty organisation is deliberately structured in a way to both dissuade and obstruct this from happening. While of course a push from Trump to pull away from Nato would lead to huge opposition from congress and the US mainstream media, the realities of Nato’s structuring make even reaching that stage an improbability.
As I have outlined previously, Nato is essentially divided into a diplomatic front and a military front. The diplomatic front is led by a secretary general, now Stoltenberg, who is deliberately always European. This is designed to prevent the idea of an ‘interfering American’ and also to better aid Nato’s aims in Europe, namely expansion. However, if Trump is set on working with Putin, the diplomatic front of Nato may decline in influence, reducing Stoltenberg to focus on increasing members’ military spending and not expansion.
Conversely, Nato’s military front is led ‘by the Supreme Allied Commander (SAC), currently Curtis Scaparrotti. This position is always filled by an American and, again, this is by design. Not only is the SAC in command of Nato’s forces, he is in command of the US’ forces in Europe. This may seem like a technicality, but in practice it means that Scaparrotti is simultaneously directly answerable to both Stoltenberg and the US president, illustrating the power the US has at the heart of Nato’s core.
This demonstrates both how deeply entangled the US’s military structures are with that of Nato and how this entanglement is of great strategic use to the US military. In fact it would be inaccurate to suggest that Nato’s military structures are not synonymous with that of the US. It is even worth noting that the favourite to get the nod as Trump’s Secretary of Defense is James Mattis, a former SAC. With all of this in mind, Trump is highly unlikely to try and prise the US from Nato, instead utilising the alliance to conduct a slight change in direction with regards to foreign policy.
It seems clear that while Trump is different to Clinton, the vacuous objections to Nato he shared during the election campaign bear no relationship to the moral and ideological nature of ours Furthermore, while Trump may see a decline in influence in the treaty organisation’s diplomatic front, Nato has constantly proved it is willing to adapt to justify its existence and will do exactly that as it begins to follow Trump’s shadowy foreign policy direction.