Menu Close
Donald Trump in middle of picture, at Nato meeting in 2019, surrounded by Nato leaders.
Donald Trump has an uneasy relationship with Nato, and has said the US would rethink its relationship if he is re-elected. Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

Waiting for Trump to be re-elected is wrong – Nato leaders need to Trump-proof their policies now

The re-election of Donald Trump as US president would cause another enormous shock to international politics. The world is full of crises, such as Ukraine and Gaza. But Trump casts a destabilising shadow over all these issues.

How do you cope with a crisis when you have no idea what a future US president will do about it – including potentially creating a further crisis? Many international leaders have largely shut down to wait and see what happens after the US presidential election on November 5. But sitting tight is the wrong way to deal with Trump. Leaders need to be proactive and move now to Trump-proof their foreign policies as well as international organisations such as Nato.

Trump is unpredictable, and thinks that’s exactly what you should be as president. He is not simply chaotic but believes that an unpredictable foreign policy gives you the advantage.

Trump is also inexperienced about international affairs and transactional – only trying to find the benefit to himself, regardless of the political implications. He thinks that all of this makes you a strong player.

But unpredictability is bad for an international system in which other states rely on knowing what will happen to formulate their own foreign policies. It’s hardly surprising then that foreign leaders feel frozen – unable to act without knowing what the situation may be.

Not acting is a dangerous policy, though. It limits countries’ power and plays into Trump’s strategy. Letting him run the show strengthens his position at a cost to everyone else, by making others work to his agenda. Instead, leaders should step up now to protect their foreign policies. They need to fully articulate what they want – and work to get it (or as much of it as they can) irrespective of Trump.

Nato’s future

Much of this revolves around Nato. Its members, who are meeting on April 4 to celebrate its 75th anniversary, must now respond not only to Trump’s threat of withdrawal but also – if the US stays in and Trump is reelected – what it means to work with someone who doesn’t respect global norms and the international will.

Nato members are committed to a 2% of GDP budget contribution. Yet this level of defence investment is too meagre to build an organisation strong enough to stand up to Vladimir Putin without the support of the US. Poland recently proposed that a 3% contribution would be more realistic. That will not be popular or easy – not least in an economic downturn. But it would give Nato members greater protection against Trump’s whims.

More money would also improve Nato forces. Europe has a capability gap in that it depends heavily on the US for military might – for example, on missile defence. Latvia’s president, Edgars Rinkēvičs, told the Financial Times that European countries needed to return to “cold war-era spending” levels and should consider the return of compulsory military service.

Building up security collaborations that do not put the US at their heart are the way forward, such as the European Sky Shield Initiative. This strategy has its issues but it’s an example of Europe standing on its own two feet.

New military policies should be developed as a deterrence approach. You build up muscle now to avoid more costly action later, because no one will test you on it. As the president of the European Parliament’s Renew Europe group, Valerie Hayer, said: “It’s high time for Europe to improve its own deterrence capabilities and take its security into its own hands.”

Nato members also need to unify and bolster organisational alliances to reduce their political dependency on the US. Increasing membership beyond new recruit Sweden is a possible option but a potentially difficult one, as this could inflame Putin.

Two soldiers on a winter Nato exercise in the snow.
A Nato exercise in Tapa, Estonia. The Baltic states are warning of the need for Nato countries to increase military spending. AP/Alamy

Dealing with crises

The issues around Nato play into multiple international crises. For example, Trump has, so far, stopped a US$60 million (£47 million) military aid package to Ukraine by leaning on Republicans to vote against bills and endorse a hands-off approach.

This means the world needs a Nato that can function without relying on Trump, if international support for Ukraine is going to continue. EU leaders recently demanded increased arms provision to Ukraine. Taking on responsibilities like this would not only help achieve foreign policy goals in relation to Ukraine, but would do so while removing a difficult dependency on the US.

Power changes at Nato would have to factor in relationships with China, where the US has provided a major check in the past. Trump has signalled he is less likely to come to Taiwan’s aid, and this could embolden China in the region. Nato needs to unify and strengthen its military might to be able to push back against China.

Yet, the situation goes beyond Nato to concerns such as Gaza. National leaders will also need to engage more with, and empower, organisations including the UN and the International Criminal Court as a future balance against Trump. Admittedly, the UN doesn’t have the best reputation for responding to international conflict – but that doesn’t mean leaders can’t use these organisations more effectively.

Major UN reform is too optimistic, but there are opportunities here that are not being taken, such as using the UN as a forum for being more vocal on what other leaders want.

Standing back – even temporarily – on issues such as Ukraine and Gaza just allows these tragedies to continue. Every day is critical in crises of this magnitude. If the world sits on the sidelines for the next six months, it not only loses time and ground but puts Trump in a stronger position if he is elected. If national leaders dance to Trump’s tune now, it will be harder for them to act later.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 182,200 academics and researchers from 4,941 institutions.

Register now