As the Trump administration’s second year in office rolls onward, what is the state of the transatlantic alliance? Writing for H-Diplo last year, I argued that Trump’s first year in office saw the emergence of a “Trumpian NATO policy.” In brief, this policy encompassed significant continuity with the substance of prior U.S. policy towards NATO, coupled with highly conditional U.S. rhetorical backing for the transatlantic relationship. As Trump—in a break from his campaign rhetoric—emphasized through mid-2017, NATO provided value to the United States, even as he suggested the United States might exit the alliance should its allies not agree to U.S. demands in intra-alliance discussions.
In How NATO Adapts, Seth Johnston has written a timely and important study of critical moments in the Atlantic Alliance’s history. Johnston persuasively argues that organizational and strategic adaptation has been a consistent feature of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since its founding in 1949. Unlike many other major studies on NATO which tend to emphasize state-centric explanations for the Alliance’s staying power, Johnston treats NATO as an actor in its own right. This focus on the underappreciated role NATO’s institutional actors have played in facilitating important organizational changes is one of the major contributions of the book.
When future historians write the story of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), 2017 is likely to go down as the Year of Sound and Fury. With the arrival of the Donald J. Trump administration, the first two-thirds of the year witnessed an array of nominal zig-zags in United States policy towards the transatlantic alliance that would have been inconceivable for any other U.S. administration. Unsurprisingly, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic struggled to make sense of the shifts, with members of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment particularly scathing in their evaluation of Trump’s moves.
On 10 June 2017 newspapers record that President Donald J. Trump went out of his way during a press appearance with the president of Romania to declare that, “I’m committing the United States to Article 5,” of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) treaty. Sighs of relief could be heard on both sides of The Pond. But as we recover from that diplomatic shock we can learn from the parallel idiocy going on the Middle East, as well as the way both sets of errors have been abetted by the administration’s foreign policy structure. The present foreign policy can be viewed usefully as a mixture of stability and flexibility. For the purposes of this discussion ‘stability’ refers to the degree of continuity between present and past American foreign policy, and ‘flexibility’ denotes the extent to which the president is able to forge an independent course in foreign policy.
NATO is a unique alliance in world history, outlasting its original purpose of deterring the Soviet Union and, in so doing, demonstrating the persistence of the shared values and interests among its members. Donald Trump is a unique president, rejecting past practice, procedures and principles. The interaction between NATO and this president in just a few months has upended decades-old assumptions about the transatlantic alliance and the presidency.
In an analytical review of alliance research, James Morrow posed the title question, “Alliances: why write them down?” A decade and a half later, Keren Yarhi-Milo, Alexander Lanoszka, and Zack Cooper revisit this issue, posing their own title question: “To arm or to ally?” Yarhi-Milo, Lanoszka, and Cooper pose this question through the structural lens of hierarchical relations, setting it up as a “patron’s dilemma” of how patrons can best ensure a client state’s security—through either a formal guarantee to defend the state against foreign attack, the provision of significant arms, or both (or neither). Hierarchical relations and patrons’ dilemmas have received increased attention in security scholarship, with several scholars expounding upon the nature of international hierarchy and its role in security provision, economic relations, democratization efforts, and many other international political issues. In their article, Yarhi-Milo, Lanoszka, and Cooper focus on the central alliance tradeoff of credibility versus flexibility. By agreeing to a formal institutionalized security pact in the nature of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) a patron can send a clear and credible signal of commitment, but such an ironclad commitment may trap the patron in an unwanted conflict. Conversely, simply supplying arms provides greater flexibility and will enhance the client’s security, but not to the degree that a formal defense pact would. How then do patrons decide which strategy to adopt? Yarhi-Milo, Lanoszka, and Cooper seek to answer that question.
As President Donald Trump’s administration begins, relations between the United States and Russia make the headlines almost every day. No one seems able to agree on what Russian President Vladimir Putin did or did not do to try to influence the 2016 U.S. elections, much less on what his ultimate aims are. Trump’s own cabinet picks, not to mention the U.S. Congress and Senate, are split on whether the U.S. should try yet another ‘reset’ with Russia, or instead punish Putin further for his actions. Meanwhile European countries allied with the U.S. in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are undergoing their own wrenching debates about Russia, with some leading politicians believing that Russia intends to break NATO or perhaps even invade the Baltics, while other European political parties openly cooperate with Putin. Business interests in both North America and Europe seek an end to the Western sanctions imposed on Russia after its seizure of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014, but human rights groups argue to the contrary that even stronger sanctions are warranted.
I am only guessing, since no one has said as much to me, but I suspect that I was asked to participate in this policy roundtable because of my remarks about Donald Trump to The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, which appeared in the 26 September 2016 issue: “I think we’re just at a point in our history where he’s probably the right guy for the job. Not perfect, but we need someone different, because there’s such calcification in Washington. Americans are smart collectively, and if they vote for Trump I wouldn’t worry.” Yes, there it is, I am an academic who, like sixty-three million Americans, supported Trump for President. Indeed, as both a Republican and a political realist, I am not only untroubled by his election, I look forward to the next four years with great expectations. “This is,” as Daniel Drezner put it, “realism’s moment in the foreign policy sun.”
The mills of historical research grind slowly,” Yale historian Hajo Holborn wrote in the early 1950s. Holborn made his observations with reference to the German delegation to Versailles in 1919. While it would have been “no doubt desirable” to the Germans to have “set into motion an objective study of the causes of the world war” to help them push back against Article 231, the “war guilt” clause, there was no hope such a history could be produced in time.
In a timely article, John Mitton seeks to show how the enduring rivalry between India and Pakistan has hampered NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan and contributed to its failure. The author is careful in noting that while the rivalry is not the only reason for failure, it certainly is a factor. The author also cites many noted regional specialists who also have argued that the Indo-Pakistani rivalry has played a role in determining the outcome of the current war in Afghanistan. In that sense, the author is correct in considering such regional factors to explain the failures in Afghanistan. The article also raises many more interesting questions worth exploring. In this review, I summarize the argument and findings, point out its strengths and weaknesses, and highlight the possible directions future research in this area could take, given the article’s conclusions.