President Donald Trump has called NATO “obsolete.” He’s bashed European leaders, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and warmed up to strongmen such as Russian President Vladimir Putin. And he’s even threatened a multifaceted trade war with allies across the Atlantic.
Trump’s norm-busting behavior when it comes to Europe — mostly failing to reaffirm America’s decades-long commitment to the continent — was always likely to be a target for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
But former Vice President Joe Biden, the party’s frontrunner, took that expected line of criticism much further than many expected.
“If he wins reelection, I promise you there will be no NATO in 4 years or 5 years,” he told CNN on Friday morning. Pressed on that point by Chris Cuomo, Biden merely restated his assessment: “No more NATO.”
Let’s be clear about what the former vice president is saying: Biden believes that Trump, by himself, could bring down the 29-member alliance founded in 1949 after the end of World War II.
Once released from the constraints of reelection, the argument goes, Trump will finally be able to act on his instincts and pull the US out of what is arguably the most important military and political alliance in world history.
On foreign policy, Biden says President Trump is dissing allies and “embracing thugs.”— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) July 5, 2019
“If he wins reelection, I promise you there will be no NATO in 4 years or 5 years.” https://t.co/i5tID1iVQV pic.twitter.com/nyl8ZE1NyA
There is some reason for that fear, experts say. Trump has repeatedly talked about leaving the group, in part because he feels European nations don’t spend enough for their own defense. The president has long called for the US to invest less in others’ security and for countries to take care of their own problems.
So, in a sense, Biden has a point. “I think its fair to say that we would likely see a second-term Trump revive his efforts to withdraw the US from NATO,” Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a European security expert at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, told me. “This president came into office with a number of deeply held worldviews,” and “he always circles back to these gut issues.”
But there are three reasons why Biden’s bold prediction is unlikely to come true, even if Trump wins.
First, as Kendall-Taylor notes, “Trump would run into a number of roadblocks — especially strong bipartisan support for NATO in Congress and widespread public support for the US commitment to NATO — that would complicate his efforts.” That pushback partly forced him to say he supports the alliance “100 percent.”
Second, European nations have a vote in the alliance’s future. NATO, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, without the US would be severely damaged. But it’s also possible that the remaining countries could band together and continue the alliance as a way to fend off Russia, which by that point would certainly be more emboldened. After all, NATO allies have started to contribute more to their security recently, seemingly because Trump has berated them into doing so.
Third, even if Trump is skeptical of the group, his administration on the whole has been good for Europe. It’s increased funding to support the continent’s defenses — although that may drop slightly this year; sanctioned Russia for its aggressive actions; and even allowed the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine to force Moscow-linked fighters out.
So while Trump’s NATO inclinations seem like an easy target — and they are — predicting the alliance’s swift demise is not only premature, it’s divorced from reality.
Biden is a defender of traditional US foreign policy
Biden’s comments to Cuomo added more context as to why he’s so worried about NATO’s future.
He talked about attending the pro-NATO Munich Security Conference in 2017 where Merkel said Europe must take “our fate” into our own hands. Biden thinks that’s a recipe for disaster.
“Why did we set up NATO in the first place, Chris? So no one nation could abuse the power in the region — in Europe — that would suck us in the way they did in World War I and World War II,” he said. “We can’t go in every place. We need allies.”
In some ways, that sounds fairly Trumpian. After all, he’s saying the US shouldn’t be the world’s policeman and get bogged down in foreign wars.
But Biden’s staunch defense of NATO stems from his traditional view of US foreign policy.
Since the end of World War II, Democrats and Republicans have pursued largely similar approaches to US foreign policy. Presidents from both parties have used US power to underwrite and maintain what’s called the “liberal international order,” which basically means the set of economic and political rules and values that help the world function.
The US never did this out of the goodness of its heart. Promoting free trade and liberal democracy was meant to provide America with markets to sell goods to and countries with which to build alliances against adversaries. It was never a perfect system, and the US made many, many errors along the way. But overall, that grand strategy helped the US maintain its position as the world’s preeminent power.
That, in a nutshell, is the world candidates like Biden want to restore and protect. Keeping the NATO alliance strong helps to protect and advance that order.
Trump clearly doesn’t see the world that way. If Biden ends up facing Trump in the general election, much of their foreign policy disagreement will stem from the fact that they have diametrically opposed worldviews, of which NATO is just a piece.