What’s Next: Continued Threats to the Western Alliance and NATO in the Post-Trump World

Luka is a second-year History and International Relations student at King’s College London originally from Colorado, USA. His geopolitical interests include U.S. foreign policy, the Transatlantic Alliance, and the advent of great power rivalry.

What’s next? It is undoubtedly a question on the mind of policy makers on either side of the Atlantic following the defeat of President Donald Trump by former Vice-President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. It is worth giving credit where credit is due. Donald Trump came into office promising to challenge the status quo, and challenge it he has. With regards to the trans-Atlantic alliance, Trump has thrown the rule book out the window with disastrous effect. He has questioned the utility of the NATO alliance, publicly berated European allies, and has even considered withdrawing the United States from NATO. President-elect Joe Biden recently wrote an op-ed for Foreign Affairs titled Why America Must Lead Again. One doesn’t have to read further than the title to understand that Joe Biden views his foreign policy as diametrically opposed to that of his predecessor. Renewing American commitment to the Western Alliance lays at the heart of Biden’s desire to put ‘The United States back at the head of the table,’ but is it really that simple? After four years of abdication of leadership and obfuscation of commitments, can the United States really ensure the continued viability of the Western Alliance? What do the parties on either side of the Atlantic want from the alliance and what are the implications if the United States and Europe continue to drift apart?  

Donald Trump’s ability to openly attack the NATO alliance, the great bulwark of freedom in the Cold War, while maintaining the support of his party and a large percentage of the American public shows that despite his defeat, dissatisfaction with the current state of the Western Alliance is likely to persist in American political circles. The most commonly touted grievance continues to be the perception that the European allies are failing to carry their weight with regards to defence spending embodied in the now proverbial call for all NATO members to spend two-percent of their GDP on defence by 2024. Despite an overall increase in defence spending by European NATO members in 2020, including France which now meets the two-percent goal, twenty member states still fall short of two-percent including Germany, which is the second largest economy in NATO and isn’t projected to meet the spending goal until 2031. It is likely that burden sharing will remain a point of contention going forward.

Adding to the challenge of rebuilding support for the Western Alliance is the preponderance of domestic issues that further threaten to distract from foreign policy initiatives. This is evidenced by the centrality of domestic reforms in Biden’s push to create a ‘foreign policy for the middle class.’ While there is no denying that Biden should seek to aggressively confront domestic issues, the continued viability of the Western Alliance will require robust American commitment that doesn’t allow the long term benefits of the alliance to be overshadowed by seemingly more pressing issues at home.

The formulation of a new American foreign policy towards China will be at the forefront of the incoming administrations priorities. The rise of China may be both a blessing and a curse for NATO and the Western Alliance. On one hand the need for the United States to commit greater defence resources to the Indo-Pacific region as part of the strategic shift to the east that began under the Obama administration will take attention away from Europe. For the first time since its inception, NATO may face a situation in which the United States and Europe no longer share the same singular greatest threat to their respective security. While an aggressive revisionist Russia remains the most pressing threat to Europe, it is now becoming clear that from an American perspective that China will soon surpass Russia as the greatest threat to US security interests. A joint response to China with NATO at its center may be the opportunity for just the revitalization the alliance requires. While Trump may have turned his back on coalition building and multilateralism in his bid to check China, it is clear that NATO offers the new Biden administration an opportunity to harness the strength of a joint response to China through consensus with European allies. This is further illustrated by the recent move by the European Union to label China a ‘systemic rival.’ With the possibility of confrontation between China and the US only continuing to increase in the coming decade, the need for western solidarity will become ever clearer.

To some observers it is clear that there is a feeling across Europe of collective relief following the election of Joe Biden. Despite the proposition of a return to normal, there are numerous indications that there is a desire to redefine the Western Alliance, particularly regarding the role of the European Union within the alliance. Since 2016 the word ‘strategic autonomy’ has come to the forefront of European political vernacular. With regards to defence, it calls for Europe to take greater initiative for its own security so that it is no longer as reliant on the United States. The foreign minister of the European Union, Josep Borrel, called for increased investment in European defence initiatives in order to better complement the alliance with the United States. The European Union has been very persistent in its efforts to portray this push for strategic autonomy as a complement to the Western Alliance through increased cooperation between the EU and NATO. Despite all the talk of strategic autonomy, what the policy actually means in practice remains ambiguous.

There is also continued debate within Europe as to what the pursuit of strategic autonomy means for relations with the United States. This was illustrated in the much-publicised disagreement between French President Emmanuel Macron and German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Kramp-Karrenbauer asserts that ‘Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider,’ and that they should pursue greater capabilities to make Europe a more effective partner in the Western Alliance. Macron rebuked this assertion, offering instead the perspective that Europe needs to attain a freedom of action separate from the United States. If Macron’s vision of the United States is one of just another power that Europe needs to balance against, then this calls into question the very existence of a Western Alliance. The election of Joe Biden has reassured European states, particularly Germany, that the United States will recommit itself to Europe, belaying, for at least the time being, French aspirations of a Europe independent of American influence. Even with Trump’s defeat, trepidation will likely continue in foreseeable future as European leaders remain fearful that US commitment to Europe could once again be reversed in four year when the next US presidential election occurs. While the election of a committed Atlanticist like Joe Biden offers an opportunity for a much-needed reset to the Western Alliance, contentions still remain between Europe and the United States. Failure to revitalize the Western-Alliance would mark a major victory for Europe and America’s illiberal rivals. In an emerging world abounding with threats the continued viability of the Western Alliance will require active commitment on both sides of the Atlantic to make the alliance work for all parties involved.

Risk-o-meter

What is the probability that the risk will materialize? – 1/3

The likelihood that the Western Alliance or NATO will cease to exist is negligible. Despite continued policy disagreements between the United States and Europe, there are considerable shared interests and values that continue to bind the trans-Atlantic alliance.  

What is the expected speed of onset? – 1/3

The election of President-elect Joe Biden has stalled fears of a continued drift between the United States and its European allies. It seems that the alliance will remain viable for the foreseeable future.

Will regional or non-regional actors be involved? – 2/3

The decline of the Western Alliance would directly involve two major world players: The United States and the European Union. It would also have wide ranging political ramifications for strategic rivals like China and Russia.

What is the probability of spill-over? – 3/3

A decline of the Western Alliance would mark a major shift in world power and would offer a significant opportunity for China and Russia to aggrandize their interests and world influence. It would deal a perhaps fatal blow to the liberal world order.

Risk-O-Meter Score: 7/15 (Minimal to Low Risk)

Featured Image: https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pictures/stock_2018/20180319_180319-nnhq1.jpg

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