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Alliance Attitudes: U.S. Election Pits Vocal NATO Backer Biden Against Frequent Critic Trump

Members of the honor guard raise the NATO flag in front of North Macedonia's parliament to mark the ratification of the country's accession to the military alliance in Skopje on February 11.

WASHINGTON -- A year ago, when the U.S. Senate voted its approval for North Macedonia to become the newest member of NATO, Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden took to Twitter the following day to show his support for the decision.

“The countries of the Western Balkans deserve to be part of a Europe whole, free and at peace and we should be supporting Euro-Atlantic integration across the region,” he tweeted on October 23, 2019.

North Macedonia officially joined in March, becoming the third nation in the Western Balkans to enter the alliance. Russia opposed its membership, a fresh blow to Moscow’s efforts to maintain influence in the region.

U.S. President Donald Trump approved North Macedonia’s long-expected accession but made no fanfare about it. He made no comment about it on Twitter, his main means of communicating with the world.

Nor did he tweet congratulations when Montenegro, another Western Balkan nation, joined NATO during his first year in office.

The contrast between the reactions of Trump and Biden underscores their starkly differing public attitudes toward the 71-year-old military alliance.

Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (right) meets with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg during the 51st Munich Security Conference in Munich in February 2015.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (right) meets with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg during the 51st Munich Security Conference in Munich in February 2015.

Despite the checks on U.S. presidential power and other factors that can provide for continuity under different leaders, it means that the outcome of the November 3 presidential election in the United States could have a big bearing on Washington's approach toward NATO for the next four years -- as well as consequences for the alliance itself over the longer term.

Trump has repeatedly disparaged NATO as a drain on the U.S. national budget that mainly benefits Europe. He has also called into question the U.S. commitment to NATO’s core principle of collective defense, known as Article 5, asking in 2018 why U.S. troops should go to war to protect a small country like Montenegro.

“Trump views the protection of the American homeland as his near-exclusive national security objective and places little value on the U.S. military presence abroad,” Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who authored a book on U.S. alliances, said in a spring commentary in Foreign Affairs.

Biden, on the other hand, has said NATO advances American security interests and has helped create prosperity not only in Europe but at home as well.

Some members of Congress, former members of the Trump administration, and officials in Europe have said they fear Trump could seek to pull the United States out of NATO should he win a second term, a move that would cripple the alliance. Biden has echoed such warnings, saying in June, “We know NATO will fall apart if [Trump] is elected for four more years.”

Amid those concerns, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December approved by a bipartisan majority a resolution that would require the Senate’s consent to withdraw the United States from NATO. The bill has yet to go to the floor for a vote.

NATO was created in 1949, with 12 founding members, including the United States, to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of war-torn Western Europe from a potential Soviet threat. It had 16 members by the early 1980s and grew larger in the decades following the Soviet collapse of 1991, taking in the three Baltic states and several former Warsaw Pact members in Central Europe that had long chafed under Moscow’s dominance.

Biden, a U.S. senator from 1993 to 2009, supported NATO’s eastward expansion in the 1990s and 2000s as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. During a trip to Kyiv as vice president in 2009, he said the United States would support Ukraine if it sought to join the alliance, refusing to recognize the country as part Russia’s sphere of influence.

U.S. President Donald Trump reacts as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a NATO leaders summit in Watford, Britain, on December 4, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump reacts as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a NATO leaders summit in Watford, Britain, on December 4, 2019.

Russia’s forcible seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its nonmilitary aggression against neighboring countries, using cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, has increased attention in Washington of potential threats from Moscow.

However, Trump took office in 2017 with a promise to put “America first” when it comes to U.S. participation in alliances, trade agreements, and international organizations, claiming that foreign nations had unfairly taken advantage of the United States.

He has repeatedly criticized European members of NATO for failing to meet annual defense spending targets, accusing them of riding for free on Washington’s coattails.

While U.S. presidents have for decades tried to push Europe to spend more on defense, none has done so in such a public fashion as Trump and none has sought to tie U.S. defense for Europe to transatlantic trade relations.

“Presidents have been trying unsuccessfully for years to get Germany and other rich NATO Nations to pay more toward their protection from Russia. They pay only a fraction of their cost. The U.S. pays tens of Billions of Dollars too much to subsidize Europe, and loses Big on Trade!,” Trump wrote in 2018 in one of his many tweets on the topic.

Trump has focused much of his public anger over NATO defense spending on Germany, the alliance’s second-largest member in terms of population and GDP. He announced earlier this year he would pull almost 12,000 U.S. troops out of the country over the disagreement on spending.

He has also clashed with Germany over its large trade surplus with the United States, and the two issues have become linked.

Fiona Hill, formerly the top Russia and Europe adviser on Trump’s National Security Council, said on October 5 that Trump views NATO “almost like a kind of a protection scheme” -- a mafia-style racket in which smaller institutions pay a more powerful patron to ensure their security.

Trump thinks NATO’s European partners should be giving the United States better trade preferences because it protects them through NATO, Hill told a conference at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank where she is a senior fellow.

Trump’s approach to NATO has strained relations with many of its other members.

In November 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron said that the United States under Trump seemed to be “turning its back on us" and that the alliance was experiencing “brain death” due to what he suggested was a lack of coordination and leadership from Washington.

Montenegrin honor guards stand next to NATO and Montenegrin flags during a ceremony in the capital in 2017, the year Podgorica joined the alliance.
Montenegrin honor guards stand next to NATO and Montenegrin flags during a ceremony in the capital in 2017, the year Podgorica joined the alliance.

But Trump has made contradictory comments about NATO, not all negative, and senior officials in his administration have sometimes walked back his remarks or presented a more positive attitude in public remarks than the president has.

"The world has changed a lot and NATO is changing right now. I've become a bigger fan of NATO because they have become more flexible," Trump said in December 2019 at a NATO summit in London celebrating the alliance’s 70th anniversary.

In November 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to assuage concerns among allies over Trump’s remarks about the collective defense principle, telling other NATO foreign ministers that “Article 5 is ironclad.”

“We have stood with our Allies over the last 70 years, and we will continue to stand with them against any and all threats to our transatlantic security,” Pompeo said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that by the end of 2020 Canada and European members of the alliance will have increased defense spending by $130 billion over the period of Trump’s term.

“This is unprecedented. This is making NATO stronger,” Stoltenberg said at a press conference with Trump at the London summit.

Luke Coffey, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, told RFE/RL that despite the president’s rhetoric and decision to withdraw troops from Germany, the Trump administration has “done some good things” to bolster NATO.

He said the Trump administration has spent significantly more than its predecessor on the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI); carried out more exercises; supported the Three Seas Initiative; increased the number of troops in Poland; and sent lethal weapons to Ukraine.

The EDI was set up in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea to reassure NATO allies of the U.S. commitment to their security against Russia’s aggression and involves rotational force deployments and infrastructure investments.

The Three Seas Initiative aims to facilitate interconnectivity on energy and infrastructure projects in Central and Eastern Europe in part to reduce dependence on Russia.

Coffey also said that Trump has also shown a greater willingness to engage with NATO members from Central and Eastern Europe and not just rely on traditional ties to Western European capitals.

Trump has invited many leaders from Central and Eastern Europe to the White House, including Polish President Andrzej Duda, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, all of whom have been accused of rolling back democratic principles in their countries.

Trump has not publicly spoken about their records on human rights or democracy.

In a statement in December 2019, Biden said that “rising authoritarianism, even among some NATO members,” was a threat to the alliance. He said he would address the democratic backsliding at summits and bilateral meetings if he is elected.

Biden said he would “prioritize strengthening national democratic institutions in member states that are not living up to NATO’s core values. Democratic and free institutions are the bedrock of our alliance, and they must be defended to strengthen our collective security.”

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.