Trump's NATO Debacle: Elephants on Glass Flooring

Why Trump's Refusal to Commit Unconditionally to Article 5 is Such a Blow to the Alliance

In international politics, talk is cheap, deception is a virtue, naiveté and missed opportunities cost dearly. These are among the lessons I learned years ago from my professor of IR, John Mearsheimer of University of Chicago. Certainly, Hobbes or Machiavelli would agree with such statements. But, unlike in the anarchic balance of power world, the micro-cosmos of collective security systems and is built on unconditional common commitments and mutual trust. Security alliances’ deterrent power rests, among other things, on the Musketeerian doctrine of “all for one and one for all,” as well as on the mutual resolve to apply it. NATO’s Article 5 plays that precise role and it has been the cornerstone of the alliance’s deterrence power for near seven decades. That is why Donald Trump’s speech on May 25th in Brussels to the heads of the member-states of the alliance, and his failure explicitly and unconditionally to endorse the collective security principle on which the alliance is built, is a really big deal. It was the latest of a recent string of attacks by the American president and his national security team on the alliance’ raison d’etre and modus operandi. And unlike some assessments, which split hair on the verbatim reading and interpretation of Article 5, I join a growing number of analysts who believe that this omission represents perhaps the biggest blow to date to NATO’s legacy of deterrence.


Trust takes a very long time of repeated interactions to build and literally no time to destroy. It is enough to cast even a momentary and ephemeral shadow of doubt to damage or destroy it–sometimes forever. In a self-help anarchical system, doubt is the norm, while trust is an anomaly, and cooperation–an exception that is rarely made possible, and only as a pragmatic, goal-oriented, short-term action. On an operational level, security alliances in general, and NATO specifically, represent essentially an exceptional case of reiterated Prisoner’s Dilemma under conditional, and often times force-believed trust, so that it result in cooperation, and not in defection. Trust is imagined, because is institutionalized in absolute terms, despite the pragmatic reasons for doubt. It requires a giant leap of faith for the Baltic or Central and South Eastern states to believe wholeheartedly in the willingness of the United States and other major NATO member-states to act, say against Russia, when needed. In the 1930s Czechoslovakia suffered the consequences from a “quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”. And so did learn Ukraine in 2014.

What ensued in Brussels last Thursday was not entirely out of synch with past debates. NATO, as well as the strategic military partnership of the U.S. with six Asia-Pacific countries, have endured beyond their natural shelf-life for over a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War. During all that time Washington policymakers have struggled to find a new raison d’etre for keeping such alliances alive, and justify paying for them.

Historically, security alliances have appeared for a large variety of reasons, and have endured for different periods of time. But they all have ceased to exist whenever they were rendered irrelevant and obsolete. NATO has been so far an exception to this rule, despite the fact that its main raison d’etre, the Soviet Union, was gone. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has repeatedly been one step away from being rendered obsolete or irrelevant. The alliance found its identity in the metamorphosis into a sentinel of the liberal order that the U.S. helped built. It accepted struggling Central and Eastern European states, even when the European Union kept them out of its gates. It gave the foundation for the “Euro-Atlantic” geopolitical orientation theme of the former communist countries, and motivated them to embrace liberal democracy as the only path to both, collective security and membership into the Western world. It stopped Slobodan Milosevic and his ethnic cleansing in Kosovo; and it went in Libya with a mandate from the Security Council of the UN to protect ordinary Libyans from Moammar Gaddafi, who had promised to “crush them like cockroaches.” Despite much criticism it would attract every now and then, some of which justified and deserved, NATO has also been a remarkably well working security system–one of its kind.

Paradoxically, the period when NATO was arguably the least relevant–during the immediate post-Cold War period throughout the 1990s and early 2000s–is also the time when it showed the most remarkable unity and vision for its existence. With growing threats all around, NATO today becomes more, not less relevant. Putting the principle of unconditional dedication to Article 5 is undermining its deterrence power and destroying the fragile trust in its modus operandi. For what is worth, the trust on which is built resembles a glass floor over an abyss on which elephants walk–it requires a harmonized effort to balance the weight, and a leap of faith not to panic that the glass will shatter under their feet. Paradoxically, the glass is most at risk of breaking when members panic and stop believing it will endure.

Many hoped that candidate Trump’s frivolous campaign rhetoric of attacking U.S. allies, NATO as well as the Asia-Pacific strategic partners, and threatening that America will not fulfill its security obligations unless they pay more, will take a step back to a more politically responsible policy by the president Trump. His insistence for more committed financial contributions to the NATO budget by the other member-states is actually justified. During the Cold War, the U.S. had extended its security umbrella rather unconditionally over Western Europe and selective Asia-Pacific countries, and footed most of the bill for it. Certainly, it was not led in it by genuine altruism but by its own national interest.

As the members of NATO, and the Asia-Pacific partners grew richer and benefited from the U.S. security umbrella, it is only fair to pay more in the common war chest. Some of the U.S. allies continue to free-ride largely on America’s good will, and continue to slack in their duty to cover their fair share for the collective self-defense, despite their repeated promises to increase their contributions. Japan, for example, can easily handle at least double of the current security price tag it pays for hosting U.S. military forces on its land, and still have it cheaper than the alternative of providing security for its self. The same would be for most NATO members, too, many of whom are yet to hit the agreed 2% target of their budgets’ spending for defense. But it is a big mistake for the president of the United States to make such negotiations public, and to use the unconditional commitment to the collective security principle as a bargaining chip.

It is not the principle or the motivation that is questioned here, but the way that Trump approached the matter. Even if there are compelling reasons to negotiate over price and financial commitments, this should be done in private, never in public. Public statements command powerful symbolism that can have far reaching consequences. It all makes sense for a businessman, who is accustomed to seize opportunities to cut his cost, and drive profit, using vulnerabilities of partners in a business enterprise adventure in times when they are in crisis. Nothing sells cheaper on the New York real estate market than a property, beleaguered by financial difficulties; and, nothing twists arms of a beleaguered partner to sell cheap and take a loss on a valuable property than when besieged by predatory debtors. Trump knows his market niche, and his business strategy all too well.

Except, the foreign policy of the richest and most powerful country in the world is not a place for real estate shark transactions. US is not some global roving bandit that should ask for protection money from the villages in its vicinity, or threaten to let them being sacked by other bandits. As one of the founders and the leader of the international liberal order–one, based on laws, principles and norms, not on a sheer struggle for survival–America cannot afford to racketeer its partners for protection. True, the cost for maintaining the U.S.-led order is disproportionately distributed. But so are the benefits and the stakes. The alternative not only for the NATO allies and the Asia-Pacific strategic partners, but for the U.S. itself would be even more daring and costly.

Sadly enough, Trump and his national security advisors believe that they can scare the allies and partners into submission, and this way cower them into paying. But they are wrong to do so in the way they did it. Instead, they may have succeeded in inflicting a significant damage to the deterrence credibility of NATO, causing dangerous cracks on the glass flooring that holds them all suspended above the abyss. Russia and China are all too happy to see this crisis ensue. Turkey may consider leaving the alliance. The Baltic and Eastern European countries watch with horror, while powerful forces of the past inside of them, allied with Russian interests, rise dangerously to question the reason for staying in NATO, and to call for referendums for a speedy exit.


After Trump’s blunt refusal to endorse explicitly and unconditionally NATO’s core deterrence clause, the alliance is undoubtedly much weaker, while the world–more dangerous. With the fragility of the trust being imagined and fragile, ironically, Trump’s actions will result in a self-inflicted wound. He found himself to be in the role of the kid that cried that the king has no cloths, while the king is America-led NATO–not the best situation to remain naked on the streets.

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