America’s NATO: Trump, Clinton, and Sanders

As tensions in the American electoral race rise, debate about the future of NATO has recently been added to the discussion, raising important questions about the future of America’s role in NATO after the 2016 election. Republican front runner Donald Trump has expressed a strong desire to diminish American involvement in NATO, while Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton has argued for sustained involvement. The candidates’ diverging viewpoints highlight crucial implications for NATO’s future in the outcome of the elections, perhaps even affecting Canada’s role in the Organization.

Clinton versus Trump: The politics of involvement

Before the Brussels attacks, Trump criticized NATO as obsolete in the post-Cold War era. Since then, Trump has further stated that without reform, he would consider pulling the US out of NATO altogether, due to the uniquely high financial costs of American involvement. Trumps believes, the US is protecting Europe with NATO, but … spending a lot of money” in doing so. Furthermore, “the United States bears far too much of the cost.”

Trump is accurate in stating that the US notably spends more than its allies on armed forces, including contributions towards NATO. However, the US is the largest economy of any Western ally and is thus able to sustain a larger defense budget. Furthermore, the nature of American-led alliances serves to re-enforce an international security system.

While Trump identified the possibility of an American withdrawal from NATO, his comments led Clinton to posit that the Republican front runner “wants [the US] to pull out of NATO” altogether. On the other hand, Clinton is advocating for an alternative strategy, citing that the US must work to strengthen its alliances. To dismiss NATO “would reverse decades of bipartisan American leadership and send a dangerous signal to friend and foe alike,” turning to the benefit of Russian President Vladimir Putin who, according to Clinton, already hopes to divide Europe. “If Mr. Trump gets his way, it will be like Christmas in the Kremlin.”

In her argument, Clinton highlighted NATO’s post-Cold War shift towards addressing terrorism. The day after the terrorist attacks in Belgium, Clinton noted that in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, “headlines across Europe … proclaimed we are all Americans.” She underscored the importance of reciprocity, in that just as Europe once responded in solidarity with the Americans, “it’s [America’s] turn to stand with Europe.” Clinton stressed the common values, threats, and goals between Europe and America and argues the importance of cooperation in furthering respective interests. In this context NATO is “one of the best investments America has ever made.” However, the Clinton has also recognized Trump’s arguments and emphasized that other members should contribute a larger share towards the organization’s military costs, seeing that while all members are supposed to spend 2% of their GDP on its defence, hardly any do.

Clinton’s clear pledge to continue supporting the organization did not resonate well with Trump, who took to twitter to respond: “[Hillary]’s been in office fighting terror for 20 years- and look where we are [now!].”

Trump has also spoken to NATO’s commitment to fight terrorism, but instead argued that the organization fails to address some of the most crucial problems of today, such as Islamic terrorism, and is instead too focused on its older adversary, Russia. He then proceeded to outline a non-interventionist foreign policy, as part of his campaign to “make America great again.”

What about Bernie Sanders?

Interestingly, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders shares more in common with Trump than Clinton regarding the future of America’s support for NATO. As far back as 1997, Sanders dismissed NATO as a misuse of American spending, arguing that, “it is not the time to continue wasting tens of billions of dollars helping to defend Europe.” Sanders agrees with Trump and Clinton that European countries must contribute more financially to their defense. During the Democratic debate in New York on April 14, 2016, Sanders echoed these sentiments, calling on European allies to supply their “fair share of the defence burden.”

The key difference between Sanders’ and Trump’s stances towards NATO is the future of American involvement. While the latter has put withdrawal on the table, the former remains committed to staying in. At the Debate, Sanders recognized that while financial aspects remain a contested issue, NATO “has been the most successful military alliance in probably human history” and the US should continue to support it.

Regarding NATO’s eastward expansion, while Clinton emphasizes NATO’s importance in deterring Russian aggression, Sanders recently called for the creation of a new ‘NATO’ that includes Russia and the Arab League, with a mission of defeating extremists like ISIS. He proposed that they be incorporated into NATO or a new military organization be created altogether, arguing that the fight against ISIS must be lead by Muslim states, “with strong support of their global partners.”

Implications for Canada

Interestingly, it seems that Trump’s charges towards NATO have sparked a conversation about Canadian defence spending. On April 27, 2016, Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said that meeting NATO’s spending target of 2% of GDP is still under consideration, since Canada’s agreement to the pledge in 2006. Currently, only five other countries of the 28 members of NATO spend less than Canada, which spends approximately CAD20 billion per year.

While the previous Conservative government promised in last year’s federal budget to increase defence spending by CAD2.3 billion by 2026, the current Liberal government has predicted that Canada’s 1% contribution to NATO spending will decline over the next few years, arguing that the Conservative promise lacked credibility. Sajjan’s spokeswoman Jordan Owens pointed out that the 2% pledge is an aspirational document in which nations calculate their contribution differently, and percentage contributions misrepresent how much is actually being spent.

Currently, the heavily American-led military spending has led some NATO members to depend on the US for essential military functions. If Trump were elected President, it is possible that he would pursue a decrease in American NATO spending, which would lead to greater scrutiny of Canada’s defence spending and pressure on the Liberal government to meet that 2% contribution.

Despite Canada’s contributions to NATO in the form of troops, pressure to enhance military spending has already commenced. In early February 2016, the British government urged Canada and other Allies to increase their defence spending. On April 20, 2016, former NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis publicly supported Trump’s sentiments that Canada and other Allies should boost their military spending to meet the 2% minimum. Just last year, President Obama called on British Prime Minister David Cameron to “pay your fair share.” Specialists have speculated that it is only a matter of time before Congress turns to Canada.

Image courtesy of Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

About Sophie Barnett

Sophie Barnett is an International Relations student at the University of Toronto. She is currently entering her third year, and her primary research interests include global governance, international security issues, and international law. Her previous works include cybersecurity issues, humanitarian intervention, and terrorism. Sophie has previously researched for the G20 Research Group and Canadian Centre for Responsibility to Protect; she is currently a Lead Analyst at the former. She is also fully bilingual in French and English. Sophie loves travelling, learning, reading, and debating, and she enjoys supplementing her education through extracurricular academic endeavours. After she completes her undergraduate degree, Sophie hopes to attend law school.