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Trump’s Popularity Shows NATO’s Need to Justify Itself

The presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, though not exactly without precedent, has been both the most unanticipated and in certain ways the most shocking of a recent lurch in Western politics to the populist right. Trump’s appeal, such as it is, rests less on a definite ideology like the so-called “welfare nationalism” of the emergent European right, but more on anger with the status quo, enhanced  by his bombastic personality and celebrity status. Indeed, pinning down just where Trump stands on any given issue is more akin to the reading of tea leaves than analysis of policy.

On many of the issues for which he has released policy papers, such as taxation, business regulation and the environment, Trump toes what has become the Republican party line, but, remains strangely non-committal to it in public statements. For example, at one point he suggested that, contrary to his own released tax policy, top-earning hedge fund managers should be taxed at higher rates than they currently are.  This is not even to mention the wider variety of topics, from abortion rights to gun control, on which Trump has taken positions diametrically opposed to the ones he held during his last ill-fated run for office with the Reform Party in 2000. Regardless of whether or not one thinks that his current or former positions are correct, Trump’s disregard for any sense of consistency is emblematic of a much wider problem about his campaign. Namely, that his actual beliefs and policy remain curiously obscured, hidden behind an ethno-nationalist rhetoric and strongman posturing.

Though he first made waves with a promise to build a wall along the Mexico-United States border, he has been unclear on the actual implications of such a policy, including on legal immigration and guest worker programs. Similarly, citing the recent modest uptick in homicide rates, along with several prominent shootings of law enforcement officers, he has made a promise of “law and order” , a key plank of his political pitch. This despite the fact that he offers no real policy prescriptions to reduce crime, only implying that his election remains the only thing between the country and total chaos (setting aside the fact that crime rates remain low by historical standards). Regardless of what he would actually enact in policy terms, if he were to be elected, it is likely that his bellicose rhetoric has contributed to a greater sense of hostility and fear of various “others” (mainly, Muslims and Latinos) in the United States. In other words, Trump might not actually execute mass deportation operations or bar all individuals from “terrorism-affected” countries as President, but he is certainly mainstreaming such ideas in a way that may reach beyond his control.

A similar set of problems reveals itself when looking at Trump’s record of statements on foreign policy. To the extent that it can be examined as a coherent set of commitments, Trump’s vision in this realm seems mainly to consist of three points: Firstly, devoting more resources to, and welcoming non-Allies like Russia and China into, the fight against ISIS. Secondly, a general skepticism of humanitarian intervention (again, not necessarily a bad thing, though he is certainly not articulating a coherent realist critique). And, thirdly, the viewing of seemingly all foreign policy interactions through an economic-nationalist, zero-sum lens. His issues with the presence of US troops in Japan and South Korea, for instance, are driven less by a reasoned consideration of the deployment’s usefulness or the capability of regional actors to work alone and more by a pure look at the balance sheet losses for America. Again, that is not to say that anyone having concerns about US military spending is inherently wrong or driving some kind of nefarious agenda, but, Trump has been deeply nonchalant about the potential consequences of cutting off such aid, suggesting his statements are driven more by impulse than any sort of even-handed consideration.

Trump’s line of thinking reaches an apex in his thoughts on the United States’ defence commitments within NATO. Aside from his strangely admiring perspective on Vladimir Putin’s regime in general, as well as the variety of connections amongst Trump’s staff to Putin, his statements that he would not necessarily defend the Baltic states in the event of an incursion by Russia are deeply troubling. The casual willingness to discard an essential part of the post-WWII global security architecture on the grounds that these nations haven’t paid up is a vast departure from a traditional understanding of American power. Begrudging flaws within NATO’s design and attempting to rectify them is one thing, but throwing allies to the wolves over a few dollars in the grand scheme is something else entirely.

With that said, the fact that Trump is popular among a not insubstantial portion of the electorate, either despite his loose talk on international affairs or because of it, does point to a larger problem. Namely, that of the declining legitimacy of institutions writ large, of which NATO is no exception. Even Americans who may find Trump’s rhetoric over-the-top or dangerous may well share his skepticism of what the United States gains from participating in defence alliances, or his sense that their country is being handed a bad economic deal by contributing a disproportionate amount of NATO’s budget. These concerns, in and of themselves, are not necessarily misplaced. Non-US NATO allies could be doing more to dispel their reputation as “free riders”, by adhering to their defence spending commitments as prescribed in the treaty. Certain other institutional reforms, such as obligating more non-US troop deployments, could also help in this regard. Moreover, though, rather than simply declaring Trump’s comments to be beyond the pale, those who find them dangerous, the heads of NATO no doubt amongst them, should begin building a more positive public case for the Alliance.

Too often, actors in large institutions assume that their function and importance are self-evident to the public, and, in times of broad political consensus, this can be taken as true. What Trump’s rise to the GOP nomination reveals, though, is that a large number of Americans are deeply frustrated with the status quo and the institutions making it up, with NATO now among them. Whether or not one finds this frustration understandable, misguided or simply wrong, the reality is it needs to be addressed. Particularly in a post-Cold War era, the reasons for NATO’s continued relevance are often unclear to the general public, nor are many of NATO’s activities against terrorism (the number one public concern in defence terms at the moment) very well publicized or understood. Simply taking public support for NATO for granted is no longer tenable, both because of Trump specifically and because of a rising nationalist/isolationist sentiment among NATO countries in general. Instead, NATO itself and those supporting the Alliance should endeavour to better educate the public on its continued purpose. Threats to the Alliance can come from without and within, and both should be taken seriously.


Photo: By Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY 4.0.

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.


Carter Vance
Carter Vance is an MA candidate in the Political Economy program at Carleton University. He has a degree in Psychology from the University of Ottawa and in Social Work from Algoma University and has also studied at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Carter was previously co-chair of the University of Ottawa New Democratic Party, has worked in the offices of several Members of Parliament and has written on politics and public policy for outlets such as Thee Westerner, The Moderate Moose and Zionish. His interests include socioeconomic dimensions of security, the changing role of international political bodies in the 21st century and Canada’s role in global economic and security systems. He also hosts the politics and public affairs podcast The Affair’s Current.