NATO After America

Trump talks of ditching Europe—but how would Europe respond if we do?

Donald Trump’s dismissive comments about NATO being obsolete, and that it might be fine if the alliance breaks up, have ruffled feathers on both sides of the Atlantic. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the first U.S. government official to outright rebuke the Republican front-runner by noting that “in my mind, the relevance of NATO is not at all in question.” On Monday, President Obama followed suit by reassuring NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that the alliance “continues to be a linchpin, a cornerstone of U.S. security policy.” While European leaders have largely refused to comment on questions relating to the U.S. presidential election, Polish President Andrzej Duda observed that a stable Europe is in the best interest of the United States.

But let us for a moment entertain Trump’s radical idea, and assume in a hypothetical scenario that the United States breaks away from NATO, because the next U.S. president is fed up with protecting and paying for those free-riding Europeans while not getting anything in return.

(According to Article 13 of the Washington Treaty, “any Party may cease to be a Party [of NATO] one year after its notice of denunciation.” For the sake of argument, let us ignore this part as a simple pro forma step.)

The ripple effect of Washington’s unilateral decision to leave NATO will most likely prompt the other twenty-seven member states to reevaluate the alliance’s overall purpose and sustainability.

Canada will probably be the second nation to exit NATO, given Ottawa’s limitations on projecting military power across the Atlantic, and possible fears of becoming entangled in burdensome European conflicts far away from its shores. Turkey, depending on how far its EU membership talks have progressed at this point, might be tempted to remain in the alliance. However, the majority of European nations will most likely want a buffer state vis-à-vis the Middle East, and consequently push Ankara out of any post-NATO alliance arrangement.

Without the United States, Canada and Turkey involved, five factors are most likely to influence Europe’s geopolitical trajectory:

(1) The extent of political dismay and the degree of public anger across the continent regarding Washington’s decision to unilaterally leave NATO,

(2) The ability of the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) to serve as an institutional framework that can mirror NATO’s operationalization process,

(3) The feasibility of Article 42 (7) of the European Treaty to support and cement alliance cohesion, analogous to NATO’s Article 5,

(4) The ability of NATO’s European members to find common ground on nuclear weapons policies in the absence of the U.S. nuclear umbrella,

(5) And Russia’s foreign and defense policy changes in reaction to the new geopolitical realities in Europe.

The best-case scenario would see NATO’s remaining European members continue to consolidate a “European” alliance, by striving for greater interoperability and increased defense spending, to compensate for the absence of U.S. armed forces, capabilities and forward-based equipment in Europe. This new alliance framework—let’s call it the European Treaty Organization (ETO)—will probably maintain an ever closer relationship with the European Union until both organizations merge over time. Meanwhile, an isolationist Washington will be condemned to watch from the sidelines while the Europeans set out to coordinate their own defense policies, which might diametrically oppose U.S. national interests abroad. The “Europeanization” of defense will most notably result in the decline of U.S. arms exports to the continent, and the rise of the European defense industry as the main supplier of the ETO forces.

One major challenge the ETO will have to face from the outset is devising a workable nuclear weapons policy. If the ETO is committed to the cause of nuclear nonproliferation, France will have to decide whether it will leave the alliance and revert to Gaullist sentiments, or spur ETO integration in a desire to develop a comprehensive European defense force. Britain, on the other hand, if it has not already left the European Union, will have to make a decision on whether to refrain from modernizing its Trident nuclear program, or leave the ETO in an effort to find shelter in an Anglo-Saxon defense arrangement, which might include the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, synonymous with the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement.