The stark contrast between the policy positions of the two principal nominees to succeed Barack Obama—Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton—exists across a broad spectrum of political discourse. Their opinions on the role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization illustrate their different approaches when it comes to confronting the complex global security environment the United States faces in the years to come.
For people of a certain age, NATO is a vestige of the Cold War, born in the aftermath of the defeat of Nazi Germany and charged with containing Soviet influence in post-war Europe. For those who came of age after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet-inspired communism, NATO’s continued purpose is somehow comforting, but for reasons that may not be clear. When NATO was founded, Lord Ismay, the distinguished British General who served as NATO’s first secretary general, said its purpose was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” The world has changed since 1951.
Although framed as a military alliance, NATO was in fact more a political organization that used the Soviet threat as the glue to bind Europe and the United States together. For more than 50 years, NATO accomplished its mission in an admirable fashion. By 1991, with the Soviet Union gone, Germany unified, and Russia in decline, NATO appeared to have lost its fundamental reason to exist. This is the sentiment of Donald Trump, who questioned NATO’s current relevance (and high price tag) in an interview with ABC news: “I think NATO is obsolete. NATO was done at a time you had the Soviet Union.” Trump added that America pays for “a totally disproportionate share of NATO.”
Hillary Clinton has a different take. “I believe that the original tenets of NATO’s mission—defending our nations, strengthening transatlantic ties, and fostering European integration—still hold,” she told the Atlantic Council in 2010. And she believes the price is right—during a speech at Stanford in March, the former secretary of state declared, “NATO in particular is one of the best investments America has made.”
The candidates arrive at these points from diametrically opposed visions of the U.S. role in the world. Clinton sees the United States as the leader of a multilateral problem-solving global enterprise. Trump favors an “America first” approach—not a return to the isolationism of pre-World War II, but rather a robust embrace of policies that singularly focus on how best to benefit the interests of the United States.
There is a common thread in the two candidates’ positions. “I will stay in NATO,” Clinton declared during a televised debate in April. “I will stay in NATO, and we will continue to look for missions and other kinds of programs that they will support.” And while Trump declared NATO to be “obsolete,” he did not advocate for its demise, but rather its reconfiguration. “I will call for a summit with our NATO allies,” Trump stated in a policy address in April. “We will not only discuss a rebalancing of financial commitments, but take a fresh look at how we can adapt new strategies for tackling our common challenges.”
A restive and aggressive Russia and an overextended NATO make for a critical foreign policy challenge that either a President Clinton or President Trump will have to confront.
Whether they are looking for new missions, or adapting new strategies, both Clinton and Trump have advocated an expansion of the role played by NATO beyond its historical task of defending Europe from Soviet/Russian aggression. In this they are on par with the policies of the past three presidential administrations, all of which have actively promoted the adaptation of NATO from a Cold War relic into a relevant expression of American-European unity.
Clinton’s vision of the future role of NATO is global. Noting that NATO was designed to confront 20th-century threats, Clinton, in a 2010 address, advocated refocusing NATO to meet 21st-century needs: “New dangers have emerged,” she warned, “such as global terrorism, including cyber terrorism and nuclear terrorism; climate change; global criminal networks that traffic in weapons, drugs, and people; threats to Europe’s energy supply, which, if exploited, could destabilize economies and stoke regional and even global conflict.”
Trump, on the other hand, has a more limited vision of NATO expansion, entirely focused on countering Islamic-based terrorism. “I’ve said NATO needs to change its focus and stop terrorism,” Trump announced in a policy speech delivered shortly after the Orlando terror attack. “We have to focus on terrorism. And we have to stop terrorism.”
Both positions belie the fact that NATO is not organized, equipped, or motivated to confront the new enemies the candidates have identified, especially those threats that might require a regional or global response to terrorism. Moreover, by diverting scarce alliance resources to military adventures outside of Europe, NATO runs the risk of no longer being able to carry out its core mission of collective security, especially in the face of a resurgent Russia that has responded to NATO expansion the way a bull reacts to a red flag.
The next president will be confronted by a resurgent and reactive Russia, still responding to NATO’s ultimate victory: the collapse of Soviet power and influence in the late 1980s. Nothing symbolized this collapse more than the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with it the unification of Germany, the nation whose psychopathic rampages five decades prior had set Europe ablaze and made many (especially the Soviet Union) forever wary of an economically strong, militarized Germany. These fears informed the treaty on the final settlement with respect to Germany, signed in September 1990 by East and West Germany, and the Soviet Union.
The treaty prohibited the deployment of NATO forces (including those of Germany) into the former territories of East Germany and restricted the size of the German military. Those restrictions were included in the framework of the 1992 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which sought to significantly reduce military forces deployed throughout Europe by NATO and the Soviet/Warsaw Pact alliance of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria.
There was never any formal agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union expressly banning NATO’s expansion into former Warsaw Pact nations. But the settlement between Germany and the Soviet Union fully intended that any deployment of military forces belonging to NATO would be limited to areas that NATO forces occupied prior to German reunification. Russia considers the decision by NATO to extend membership to former Warsaw Pact nations a violation of the spirit of the commitments Germany and NATO made to the Soviet Union in 1990, a fact that continues to color Russian impressions of NATO’s mission today.
The principal vehicle for attaining NATO membership in the post- Cold War era has been the “Partnership for Peace,” which seeks to align potential members with NATO’s core principles: rule of law, individual liberty, and democratic values. The PFP was initiated in 1994 during the administration of President Bill Clinton, over Russia’s strident objections.
By 2004 NATO had extended invitations to 10 nations, including seven former Warsaw Pact states, to become members. When Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania became members, NATO expansion was too close to home for Russia. Suddenly, three former Soviet Republics who had not signed the CFE Treaty were NATO members sharing a border with Russia. NATO’s refusal to agree to any limits on the deployment of forces into the three Baltic nations pushed Russia too far. In 2007 Russia suspended its participation in the CFE, abandoning the principal vehicle NATO relied upon to ensure that Russia posed no military threat to Europe.
And what was once a North Atlantic Treaty Organization continued to add programs. The Mediterranean Dialogue, focused on nations such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt (Libya, viewed as a pariah state, was excluded), was launched in 1994 as part of an initiative to address the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, after NATO Secretary General Willy Claes warned that Islamic fundamentalism was at least as dangerous to the West as communism once had been.
In 2004, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, NATO expanded the Mediterranean Dialogue process and added the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative to create “a security cooperation partnership” with Middle East states that would be able and willing to contribute to NATO missions. Both programs have failed, as evidenced by the events of the “Arab Spring” in 2010–2011 and the ongoing crises in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
Failure notwithstanding, both programs are the type of NATO expansion supported by Hillary Clinton who, as secretary of state, oversaw their implementation—and the NATO-led military intervention in Libya in 2012. While President Obama has identified Libya as his greatest foreign policy failure, Clinton does not seem to have drawn the same conclusion. She continues to advocate for NATO involvement in Syria, including a “no-fly zone” and humanitarian “safe zones,” which eerily resemble the failed Libyan intervention. Unlike in Libya, however, any NATO intervention in Syria would be complicated by the presence of a significant number of Russian military forces, deployed to protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. From a Russian perspective, any NATO effort in Syria would be linked to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, and would complicate already tense NATO-Russian relations. President Putin has made both Ukraine and Syria the centerpiece of a newly assertive foreign policy that aggressively defends Russian interests abroad. This policy arises in large part as a reaction to an expanded NATO; at this point any decision by NATO to intervene in Syria would only confirm in Russian minds the notion that NATO exists for the sole purpose of confronting and containing Russia both in Europe (Ukraine) and beyond (Syria).
“I think NATO is obsolete. NATO was done at a time you had the Soviet Union.” — Donald Trump
The crisis in Syria underscores the impotence of NATO and its MD/ICI expansion programs in the face of robust military threats, and the difficulty in expanding what was originally intended as a European defensive alliance into a regional and global actor. NATO’s experiences in Afghanistan, where it joined the U.S. “Global War on Terror,” and its ongoing training mission in Iraq do not bode well for NATO’s vision as a bulwark against the modern threat of Islamic fundamentalist-inspired terrorism.
Though Trump has said “NATO needs to change its focus and stop terrorism,” current events seem to support his other position on the same issue: “NATO’s not meant for terrorism. NATO doesn’t have the right countries in it for terrorism.”
The heart of NATO’s viability as an alliance can be found in Article 5 of its charter: an attack against one is an attack against all. “I want to reaffirm as strongly as I can,” Clinton recently declared, “the United States’ commitment to honor Article 5 of the NATO treaty. No ally—or adversary—should ever question our determination on this point.”
But Article 5 has only been invoked once, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terror attack on the United States, and has resulted in no meaningful military commitment of forces. NATO’s intervention in Afghanistan was done under Article 4, which allows NATO members to “consult” regarding issues of joint concern. (NATO’s intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya were also done using Article 4.)
For NATO to remain viable as a defensive organization, it must give teeth to the promise of collective defense inherent in Article 5, and the commitment in Article 3 of its charter to “maintain and develop the individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” During the Cold War, when NATO’s primary military mission was “to keep the Russians out,” it was Article 3 that drove the alliance, underpinning the maintenance of large land armies to deter any potential Soviet aggression. Today, lulled into a false sense of complacency regarding the threat posed by Russia, NATO is a shell of its former self. Far from allowing itself to be relegated to second-class status, Russia has responded to the perceived threat of NATO expansion by modernizing and re-invigorating its military to the extent that today there is a real question as to whether NATO could effectively counter a concerted military attack by Russia against Poland or the Baltic states—a fear made all the more relevant by the recent Russian annexation of Crimea and the ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine.
A restive and aggressive Russia, in the context of NATO, represents a critical foreign policy issue that either a President Clinton or President Trump will have to confront.
“If Trump gets his way,” Clinton recently opined, “it will be like Christmas in the Kremlin. It will make America less safe, and the world more dangerous.” But her words ignore the fact that, in her search for new enemies for NATO, she has reinforced a decades-long failure by the United States and NATO to responsibly and realistically address Russian concerns and Russian ambitions.
If anything, Trump’s willingness to engage with Russia, rather than endorse the policies of isolation and containment favored by Hillary Clinton, represents the sole path identified by either candidate out of the morass of failed or ineffectual policy that has defined America’s post- Cold War NATO experience.
“NATO is obsolete,” the New York real estate mogul declared. Perhaps he is right.
Former Marine intelligence officer Scott Ritter served on the staff of General Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991–1998. He is the author of several books.