The NATO alliance has been a cornerstone of American national security strategy, promoting stability in Europe, and the advancement of our shared values. Our allies came to our defense after 9/11, going to war with us in Afghanistan. More broadly, the U.S. partnership with the EU has been critical to the stability of the West.
The United States and eleven other countries established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 to counter the threats posed by the Soviet Union. The alliance has since expanded to include 29 countries. Today, long after the fall of the Soviet Union, the alliance still exists to deter mutual security threats ranging from Russian expansion to global terrorism. The principal agreement in the treaty is Article 5, a commitment by each country to the collective defense of the other member countries. In other words, an attack on one is an attack on all. The members invoked Article 5 – for the first and only time to date – to come to the aid of the U.S. in the wake of the September 11th attacks, joining military operations in Afghanistan.
President Trump has repeatedly complained about NATO’s cost to the United States and called the alliance "obsolete." He consistently confuses overall defense spending levels with direct spending on NATO. The US pays 22% of NATO expenses, a proportion which, based on the NATO cost-sharing formula, is in line with the relative size of the American economy. Other member countries also fulfill their assigned responsibilities for direct NATO costs. In 2014, NATO member countries pledged to increase their respective defense spending to 2% of GDP over the next ten years. The goal was to strengthen European defense capabilities in the wake of reductions in the U.S. security footprint in Europe since the end of the Cold War. However, many scholars have noted that the 2% metric is "barely useful" because it can only measure input without any accountability for positive results.
Worse still, President Trump has wavered in his support for the NATO alliance, initially refusing to affirm the U.S. commitment to NATO’s Article 5 provision for collective defense, and expressed open hostility to the EU. This is particularly alarming at a time of growing Russian aggression. Russia has attacked and supports separatist movements in Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and disrupted elections in the U.S. and European countries. On June 9, 2017, President Trump finally endorsed NATO’s Article 5, a month after he notably failed to do so in a speech at NATO headquarters. Later that year, in an attempt to solidify our allies’ faith in U.S. commitments, the House passed Rep. Paul Ryan’s H.R.397, which expressed the House’s commitment to Article 5.
On July 11-12, 2018, President Trump traveled to Brussels to attend the 2018 NATO Summit where, like the G7 summit the previous month, he berated American allies. The President got the meeting off to a rocky start by venting, in front of press, to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg about member nations’ defense spending and attacking Germany’s perceived “dependence” on Russian natural gas, especially the Nord Stream II project.
Reports indicate that, during the closed door meetings, the President threatened to “go it alone” if members did not meet the 2% threshold by January, although both President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron disputed the President’s intentions to pull out of the alliance. After the meeting, it was reported that 3 more member countries plan to have met the 2% defense expenditure threshold by the end of the year and more than half of NATO members plan to meet it by the 2024 deadline.
On July 16, 2018 President Trump held a bilateral summit with President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, in which he failed to confront Putin for previous instances of aggression. The meeting once again highlighted Trump's strange affinity for the Russian strongman, and the risks for the United States’ interests and allies.
On November 12, 2018, after a trip to France to commemorate 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, President Trump reiterated his position, on twitter, that the United States pays too much into NATO. He claimed that while the United States pays “LARGE portions” of NATO allies military protection, but then losing money to those same countries on trade.
In mid-January 2019, it was reported that President Trump had repeatedly spoken about his desire to withdraw from NATO to the concern of many in the National Security community. President Trump later combated this claim with a statement that the United States was “gonna be with NATO 100 percent”, but said they NATO allies needed to “step up” and “pay.”
In late January 2019, acting Defense Secretary Shanahan said that he was encouraged by the efforts of NATO allies to increase the burden-sharing and reiterated that President Trump was with NATO “100 percent”, including Article 5.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addressed a joint session of Congress in April 2019, on the 70th Anniversary of the Alliance. During his speech he strongly defended the alliance and urged NATO allies to stand up to Russia. This was the first time a NATO Secretary General was invited to address Congress.
Congressman Jimmy Panetta introduced the NATO Support Act (H.R. 676) which calls on the United States to remain in good standing with NATO and reject any efforts to withdraw the United States. The legislation passed the House with an overwhelming majority.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
By casting doubt on U.S. commitments to the transatlantic alliance, President Trump has led U.S. allies to question American reliability and consider developing independent European defense capabilities. We’re asking Members of Congress to affirm our Article 5 commitment to our European allies and partners and take steps to strengthen the NATO alliance.
Call your senators at (202) 224-3121 to ask them to pass the NATO Support Act (H.R. 676) and make clear that the U.S. stands by our ally commitments. Be sure to mention that:
American involvement in NATO is crucial to American national security. It deters Russian aggression, including election meddling and regional expansion.
It deepens our relationships with allies we need to tackle other global priorities like climate change and nuclear non-proliferation.
For 70 years, NATO has played a central role in the stability of Europe and the strength of the West.
What is NATO? – NATO
Transcript: Donald Trump Expounds on His Foreign Policy Views – The New York Times, March 2016
Transcript: Donald Trump on NATO, Turkey’s Coup Attempt and the World – The New York Times, July 2016
On Trump’s NATO Stance – Thomas Wright, Brookings Institution, April 2017
Trump Security Strategy a Study in Contrasts – Max Boot, Council on Foreign Relations, December 2017
What America Gets Out of NATO – Nicholas Burns, The New York Times, July 2018
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – Jonathan Masters, Council on Foreign Relations, July 2018
NATO at Seventy: An Alliance in Crisis — Ambassador Douglas Lute and Ambassador Nicholas Burns, February 2019