The Future of the U.S. Alliance System

Will It Survive the Trump Presidency?

Polish, U.S., and British flags are seen during a NATO allies' exercise near Torun, Poland, June 7, 2016. Kacper Pempel / Reuters

During the U.S. presidential campaign, Donald Trump frequently expressed his doubts about the usefulness of NATO. Although he said that he didn’t want the United States to pull out of the alliance, his general criticisms of it have left an indelible impression on U.S. allies, for better or worse. His more benign remarks (which others have made before him) involved lambasting the United States’ partners for not paying their fair share of NATO defense. “Only four of 28 other member countries besides America are spending the minimum required two percent on defense,” he said in April while on the campaign trail. Trump has also suggested that NATO “doesn’t really cover terrorism like it’s supposed to.”

The president-elect’s coarser attacks—such as calling NATO “obsolete”—have struck hard at NATO’s fundamentals. And more ominously, he has repeatedly made the United States’ defense guarantee a purely conditional and transactional commodity. “If they can’t pay their bills, honestly,” he declared at a campaign rally in Wisconsin and has since repeated a number of times, “they’ve got to go.” In the case of a Russian attack against the Baltic members of NATO, Trump said that the United States should come to their aid only “if they fulfill their obligations to us.” When discussing the possible withdrawal of U.S. troops, he said, “If we have to defend the United States, we can always deploy [from American soil] and it will be a lot less expensive.”

Given such statements, as well as those implying closer relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the inevitability of Japan and South Korea acquiring nuclear weapons, allied leaders have naturally reacted with trepidation. President Park Geun-hye of South Korea spoke with Trump only two days after the election, as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg sought to reassure others (and possibly himself) that the alliance would remain intact. On November 17, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe flew to Trump Towers to meet with the president-elect;

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