Lawmakers tout defense policy legislation enacted in December this prevents any president from withdrawing the United States from NATO without Senate approval or an act of Congress. Yet on Monday, Democrats acknowledged that the guardrail they erected would have limited effect on a president opposed to the alliance.
Trump, for example, could refuse to appoint a U.S. ambassador to NATO headquarters in Brussels, or order U.S. military commanders to scale back exercises with their NATO counterparts. It could even refuse to come to the aid of a country if it is attacked.
These steps will not be enough to remove Washington from the alliance, but they would certainly show that the administration is moving away from its key commitments in Europe.
“He might just reduce our participation…he won’t go to the summits and the secretary of defense won’t go to the defense ministers” at NATO, said Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon official who oversaw the politics of Europe and NATO. “American leadership is going to give up and you just won’t see many American faces anymore.”
The senator Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut Democrat), who has pushed for legislation to prevent Trump from deploying U.S. troops on American soil in a possible second term, said it was time to start looking for ways, through legislation, to protect NATO from a future Trump presidency.
“I am petrified by the prospect that Donald Trump might cut funding or otherwise, in fact, or even in words, withdraw American support for NATO. I think these comments are disastrous,” Blumenthal said in a brief interview.
“There are potentially other steps we can take, and we should start exploring them immediately while we still have the NATO Support Unit.” »
It would be “very difficult” for Congress to lock down a commander in chief who wants to withdraw from the alliance, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said. Jack Reed (DR.I.) said Monday. Indeed, many of the ways the United States contributes to NATO—including filling positions in Europe or at NATO headquarters or keeping U.S. troops stationed in Europe—are directed by the executive branch.
“What we prevented with this language, which I think is important, is a total withdrawal, a formal withdrawal from NATO – so we would still be in NATO, but the president would have so many different levers ; our participation could be significantly reduced,” Reed said.
Trump’s record on this issue also raises the specter of a two-tier approach towards European countries: rewarding good behavior and abandoning those he wishes to punish.
Rose Gottemoeller, former deputy secretary general of NATO during the Trump administration, pointed out that Trump’s call to withdraw thousands of US troops from Germany was due to his anger over Berlin’s refusal to increase spending was tempered by his desire to send more troops to Poland, which was – and continues to be – in a defense spending spree.
“The Poles were ‘paying to play’ with 2% of GDP and he loved it (while German Chancellor Angela Merkel) refused,” she said, “and he hated it.”
Gottemoeller warned that “if he encourages Putin to attack NATO now, I’m not sure he has the same mind.”
Kristine Berzina, a NATO expert at the German Marshall Fund, said if Trump gets creative, he could do a lot of damage.
“There are so many layers to what kind of bad ally the United States can be” to NATO, she said.
Article 5, in which NATO allies pledge to assist any member country attacked, remains open to interpretation. The response of treaty members always depends on each government’s decision to act, and there are no sanctions for inaction. If one of its members were attacked by Russia and President Trump decided not to come to that country’s aid, there was little anyone could do to force him to act.
If Trump refuses to send an ambassador to NATO, or sends a representative more interested in breaking tables rather than reaching consensus, “I think you could see something potentially similar to what we’re seeing now in Congress, because each country has an equal voice. , technically, but the United States is the most powerful of these voices and there is a lot of deference given to them.
“And so it can very quickly become ineffective,” she added. “For the United States to be part of NATO, it must be actively there, otherwise it will fall into a coma. »
While Democrats expressed shock and dismay at Trump’s remarks, Republicans were quick to downplay or defend them.
Many framed Trump’s comments as pressure for NATO members to strengthen their defenses and dismissed the idea that his words could undermine the alliance.
Trump has used the threat of withdrawing from NATO or reducing troops in some European countries to push member countries to commit to spending more on their own armed forces during his presidency. NATO members agreed to a non-binding target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense at the 2014 Wales Summit, but only 11 countries met the target.
For many Republicans, Trump’s comments were just rhetoric aimed at getting Europe to pay more for its defense.
“In my view, he is asking NATO countries to step up their efforts and meet their financial obligations, but we are obliged by the treaty to come to their defense, under Article 5, and so I think that this would be conclusive on this point,” declared the senator. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
“I take everything Donald Trump says seriously, but I don’t take it literally,” Cornyn added.
The senator Marco Rubiowho co-sponsored NATO legislation with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to prohibit a president from unilaterally withdrawing from NATO, dismissed Trump’s comments as the former president “addressed the things like a businessman and negotiated a transaction.”
“I was here when he was president, and he did not undermine or destroy NATO,” Rubio said. “He asked our allies to do more. He simply asked a very different question than other presidents, and they did the same thing. »
The senator Thomas Tillis (R-N.C.), said the Rubio-Kaine legislation was “helpful” and “wise.” He also expressed sympathy for Trump’s remarks, which he saw as an effective expression of his frustration that NATO allies are failing to meet their spending commitments.
“Thank God Trump put pressure on NATO four or six years ago, because we are in a much better position to do what we do today as a NATO entity, than we are We weren’t before,” Tillis said. “And so, hey, if the rhetoric has worked and it’s putting some people on notice, then maybe I’ll give him a little bit of a break and let him continue to use that rhetoric.”
For Armed Forces President Reed, there is still an extremely effective solution. “We can make sure he doesn’t become president again,” he said.