Many American presidents have tried to get the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members to contribute more to their defense. For example, President Obama said that “every NATO member has to do its fair share.” President Eisenhower said that "[Europeans are] making a sucker out of Uncle Sam.” James Schlesinger, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, even asked members to spend 5 percent of their GDP, compared to the 2 percent target now.
Trump has joined this chorus, repeatedly claiming that “NATO members that aren’t paying their bills” and are treating the Atlantic Alliance more as an extortion racket than the world’s preeminent interstate security agreement. But according to my research, where others have failed, Trump might be succeeding (although probably inadvertently). But this possible, short-term success is also undermining NATO’s medium and long-term cohesion.
What My Research Finds
All international treaties are made under “anarchy,” a condition where no external authority will enforce agreements or punish violations. States can only rely on their own resources for their defense, or that of allies who contribute to shared defense out of mutual national interests, institutional binding, or normative persuasion.
But alliances carry risks. Brett Ashley Leeds of Rice University finds that partners abrogate their commitments nearly a quarter of the time, while two researchers of Texas A&M University, Molly Berkemeier and Matthew Fuhrmann, recently found that states defect from defensive pacts over 40 percent of the time. If war comes, many countries suddenly “remember” better things they would prefer doing, letting an ally take the brunt of a military conflict.
Consequently, all states want to know they are their ally’s top priority under the terms of their alliance agreement. Will your partners show up when called, or will they place other goals ahead of your defense? Alliances can, therefore, be understood as formal promises of social rank. Allies state that, under certain conditions, they will prioritize a partner’s defense over other competing alignments or alliance partners. Those conditions can be broad, as found in NATO, or very tightly defined, such as in the alliances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as later in the late nineteenth century. But whatever the conditions, foundationally, an ally is saying that it prioritizes a partner’s defense above possible, alternative security coalitions.
I use this approach in a book project I am working on to assess why 75 percent of alliances share identical institutional features. One finding of my study is that manipulating rank is an effective source of coercive power over one's allies, particularly if you are more powerful. By credibly threatening to abandon partners in favor of other interests, or worse still, to realign against them, you can induce greater effort or concessions on their part.
In making this kind of threat, a state is not simply complaining about paying too much and badgering its partners to contribute more. Instead, it’s threatening to abandon the entire relationship, sacrificing all its interest and investment in that association to make smaller changes in burden sharing. Effectively, it’s losing the war (or threatening to lose the war) to win a battle.
In Europe, this is a very difficult policy to pull off. The United States and its NATO partners have multiple and extensive overlapping interests. Trans-Atlantic security is foremost among them, but they also possess deep trade ties, financial investments, and shared democratic norms and values. Transnational networks of legislators, military officials, and scholars further reinforce favorable policy towards NATO, and reputational considerations (e.g., the damage to American credibility were it to renege on this core alliance) reduce the chance of defection.
Unless the order of prioritization changes, European allies have fewer incentives to acquiesce to intra-allied coercion. Sure, they may get fewer weapons, or financial transfers, or other intra-allied goods. But so long as the ranking remains stable, allies know a partner will uphold the foundational-security guarantee. Indeed, what other option do they have? Unless America can credibly suggest it places Russian interests above European security, there are limits to how far Washington can coerce Berlin, London, and Paris and still maintain its core foreign policy interests.
Trump: The Good
But Trump's antics are credibly raising the prospect of abandonment/realignment, suggesting that he might be succeeding in shifting the NATO burden. He has done this through a persistent criticism of the Atlantic Alliance:
- During the 2016 campaign, he called the alliance “obsolete.” Although Trump reversed himself in April 2017, the fact that he took credit for a “new” focus on terrorism (something NATO has concentrated on since at least 1999) probably did not help in reassuring allies.
- He initially refused to support NATO’s signature Article V security guarantee (“an attack on one is an attack on all”), surprising both U.S. allies and members of his own Cabinet.
- He stated that “NATO is as bad as NAFTA.” Given that protectionism is perhaps Trump’s most consistently-held political belief, and that he called North American Free Trade Agreement “the single worst deal ever approved,” this statement is understandably alarming foreign policy experts.