The Future of the Transatlantic Alliance During the Trump Presidency

Written by Selma Bardakci, THO Advisory Board Member and Temmuz Yigit Bezmez, THO Contributor

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of the Turkish Heritage Organization

The retreat of U.S. leadership from the global stage has raised important questions and concerns among America’s traditional allies. Emphasizing the need to put “America First,” U.S. President Donald Trump has imposed protectionist tariffs to rebalance the bilateral trade with some countries including European states and even questioned the U.S. commitment to support NATO allies in different international disputes. These unsettling developments have pushed European countries to re-evaluate their abilities to advance their own economic and security interests without U.S. support. President Trump’s approach has diminished the credibility of the United States as a strategic partner. While many European heads of state have sought to avoid confrontation with Trump and to wait out his presidency, French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent comments on NATO’s “brain death” offered a candid rebuke of the unpredictable and unreliable voice inside the White House. Macron’s comments reflect the important transformation in recent years of French attitudes towards the transatlantic alliance. While the comments themselves were widely seen as alarmist, the reality is that America’s European allies still need to grapple with the question of how to redefine the NATO alliance.

France’s Scepticism Towards NATO (L’Exception Française)

On 7 March 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle sent a letter to the U.S. President, Lyndon B. Johnson, and said: “France is determined to regain on her whole territory the full exercise of her sovereignty, at present diminished by the permanent presence of allied military elements or by the use which is made of her airspace; to cease her participation in the integrated commands; and no longer to place her forces at the disposal of NATO.”
Historically, France’s attitudes toward the United States and NATO have always been complex. Throughout NATO’s 70-year history, France has been always championed the idea that European nations should form a more independent defence system, rather relying too much on integration with the United States. This so called “disenchantment” between France and NATO was seen at many times during the 1950s and 1960s during the Suez crisis, in Algeria, at the beginning of détente, and notably in Vietnam. France took no part in NATO’s strategic military planning between 1966 and 2009, despite being a founding member. Yet at the same time, France has historically enjoyed being a strategic partner of the United States. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson showed the CIA’s surveillance photos of the Cuban missiles to President de Gaulle, he replied: “I don’t need to see pictures of the weapons of mass destruction. The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me.” 

Ever since President Macron was elected in May 2017, he has been sending strong messages to other EU member-states about the need for stronger European leadership. He has sought to demonstrate that France, more so than Germany or any other EU nation, can rise to the challenges of a transforming world order. And he is eager to show the European community that his ideas can address Europe’s most urgent challenges, including migration, global terrorism, the disruptive effects of rapid digitalization, and climate change, as well as the loss of dynamism and competitiveness among European economies. In his speech at Sorbonne on 26 September 2017, he urged even greater European integration: “The only way to secure our future, the one I want to talk to you about today, is up to us, it’s up to you. It is the rebuilding of a sovereign, united and democratic Europe.” President Macron’s insistence on European sovereignty and his desire to prioritize European policies may again be understood from his own words: “If we have no freedom to act, then we have no credibility at foreign policy.” 

Even though it seems like Macron’s vision is a simple reflection of France’s ambivalent outlook on NATO and its concerns since de Gaulle and even though Macron would agree with de Gaulle’s view that NATO occasionally prevents France from being an autonomous force, it is important not to simplify Macron’s concept of common security to a Gaullist approach of independence or anti-Americanism. De Gaulle thought that the United States had too much power within NATO and was concerned about being captive to American anxieties. By contrast, Macron now thinks that the United States may not be a trustworthy security partner and argues that Europe should take a step forward and assume a leadership role. 

In particular, Macron has sought to promote European leadership on the important issue of Western policy toward Russia. He has aimed to address the Central European and Baltic states’ concerns about Russian military activism and cyber warfare. Nevertheless, Macron’s agenda is not to alienate the United States over European security, an issue he believes can strengthen the transatlantic alliance. Michel Duclos brilliantly argues in his piece “After Munich, a Macron Doctrine on Strategic Affairs” that while divergences may exist between American and European interests and priorities, the Macron doctrine affirms that “Mediterranean policy and policy towards Russia must be European policies.” As Judy Dempsey of Carnegie Europe observes, the French president has also made clear his desire to end Russia’s sense of isolation and alienation by relaunching a dialogue with Russia. Macron has defined and developed his own style of “Ostpolitik” in the major disagreements between the two nations in many hot conflict zones in Syria, Libya, and Crimea.

On the flip side of the coin, with respect to domestic politics, the French president has been losing his momentum, starting with the yellow vests protests that began in November 2018 and now continuing with the pension reform strikes that started in December 2019. Upcoming municipal elections in France in March will also reveal whether Macron has lost support among voters who backed him in the previous presidential elections in 2017. In the meantime, populist and Eurosceptic movements are gaining more ground and now threaten Macron’s push for stronger European cooperation, particularly on security issues. These domestic difficulties definitely increase the complexity of NATO’s relations with Europe and specifically with France. They also make things harder for Emmanuel Macron at a time when he is openly making his bid to fill the vacuum as Europe’s leading figure.

Macron’s “Brain Death” Comments: Recalibrating NATO

Macron’s cutting comments about NATO’s “brain death” came after the U.S. and Turkey’s decisions towards Syria in October 2019. At the same time, he sharply criticized Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw U.S. soldiers from Syria and thereby pave the way for Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring. Macron’s comments provide a clearer sense of the French president’s outlook, in particular on transatlantic relations today. Diminishing American political leadership, Trump’s unilateral approach, and some member states’ uncoordinated actions and closeness to Russia are the main motives for Macron’s criticism of NATO. 

Whether one likes or dislikes Macron’s comments on NATO, they have opened a new chapter for ongoing discussions on how recalibrate or redefine NATO’s role in the 21st century. The Pew Research Center’s recent poll shows that NATO is mostly seen favorably among its members. Approval is highest is in Poland at 82% of the population, approval in France is relatively positive at 49%, but in Turkey a mere 21% of the population shares these positive views. The widespread negative perception of NATO in Turkey has been shaped by recent developments on Turkey’s borders and its fight with different terrorist groups for protecting its national security and sovereignty.

Macron’s comments about NATO’s “brain death” and the discontent in NATO members such as Turkey brings us to a fundamental question facing the alliance: What is the “raison d’être” of NATO? Is it an increasingly assertive Russia that has annexed Crimea and tested NATO’s strength? Or a re-emerging China? Or extremist groups in the Middle East and North Africa region? 

The Retreat of U.S. Leadership in Europe 

At the 56th Munich Security Conference this February, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier addressed European concerns about U.S. leadership directly. He said, “Under its current administration, our closest ally, the United States of America, rejects the very concept of an international community.” Unpredictability from the White House and Trump’s ongoing criticism of NATO allies over the need to increase defence spending has pushed European countries to look for alternative options. Yet it is important to highlight the United States offered similar criticism under President Barack Obama, who was known as a multilateralist and a champion of international liberalism. Obama also accused America’s European allies of being free riders in 2016 and asked them to share the burden with the United States. Another Obama policy that unsettled European powers was the U.S. president’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy. When President Obama announced this new strategy in 2011, he gave many European allies cause for concern that the United States had lost interest in Europe and would become less involved in neighbouring regions such as the Middle East and Africa. Thus, the United States’ new focus was not welcomed by its European allies. And now during the Trump administration, the United States has not promoted a cohesive or grand strategy that could provide direction for European allies and help them feel that they are part of a broader coalition with common interests.

Is NATO Still Relevant and Efficient?

The fractured world that we are living in today makes it very hard to predict the near- or long-term future. High interconnectedness, uncertainties in geopolitics and the global economy, rapid technological change, competition in new technologies, and the unintended consequences of climate change are all reshaping the global balance of power and making NATO allies concerned about their future. As great power competition intensifies, NATO will need to tackle these 21st century problems. Yet the United States and Europe are now struggling to rise to these challenges. Ian Bremmer, the president and founder of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said, “We have a tech Cold War right now that’s on display right here and Europe wants no part in it….There’s never been such a rift with how Americans and Europeans define the security threat as right now.

It has been a challenging time for NATO and its allies. Donald Trump is a reluctant leader who does not want the United States to take on the burden of leading globally or setting the international agenda. His policies have thus created an opportunity for powers like Russia and China, who have been acting to involve more to the global system and promote their own national interest, instead of acting as benevolent forces for the international community. 

Two important and historical allies of the United States—France and Turkey—are good examples that show how individual NATO members have taken action to reshape transatlantic relations in the short term during the Trump presidency. Furthermore, the alliance has been struggling to assert its role and strengthen its capabilities in order to overcome the new challenges facing the world today. These new threats range from Russian and Chinese aggression to the new Cold War between the United States and China in technology. At the recent Munich Security Conference, numerous policymakers, including U.S. Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, highlighted the issue of Chinese technology, and expressed deep concerns about Huawei’s engagement with Western countries through telecommunications.

Despite the challenges that NATO now confronts, the alliance represents the values of democracy, human rights, free markets and enterprise, and the rule of law, and it thus remains a crucial symbol of transatlantic values. It is maintaining peace in numerous countries and fighting against ISIS, but still the questions and concerns about its existence and how to adapt the new challenges of our world remain on the table and need to be discussed.

The recent discussions concerning Turkey’s Operation Spring Shield in Idlib have shown the confusion even among elites and intellectuals about basic questions. What is the value of being a NATO member when a member-state confronts a threat that is not covered under Article 5? How can NATO address its members’ concerns and the changing environment of international relations, in which, borders are becoming more meaningful and the idea of powerful nation-state comes back. And when a member is attacked, how should its NATO allies respond in order to not merely condemn the violence but also propose a mechanism for offering support?

To sum up, the weakening of the liberal international order at different levels, the diminishing global role of the United States under President Trump, and the global re-emergence of China have raised serious questions about the role of NATO today. The outbreak of coronavirus poses a stronger threat to transatlantic cooperation but it seems that the EU feels abandoned due to the Trump administration's immediate decision to stop the flights coming from the EU and offered no assistance while China takes a step ahead by sending technical equipment and doctors to Italy and Spain. The resurgence of nation-states with larger control in domestic economies will challenge the fragile and weak international cooperation and solidarity. With the rise of China's involvement in the international system and influence of different societies in various issues seen him as a straw where helpless, drowning European countries will clutch and the only option while the U.S., EU and NATO are too slow for responding, it might let the inevitable erosion of the global transatlantic partnership. What is more, these developments and others pose still graver challenges to the transatlantic alliance in the long term. Thus, despite widespread global uncertainty, one thing is clear: redefining NATO’s role will and should be a top priority for the transatlantic alliance.