The European Union and the NATO alliance have been pillars in the Western liberal world order since World War II — and US President-elect Donald Trump seems indifferent about their survival.
Trump made waves this week by repeating his assertions that NATO is “obsolete” and remarking that the EU’s future didn’t matter much to the US. His comments worried some European leaders, and outgoing Vice President Joe Biden lashed out at the president-elect during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week.
“Defending the liberal international order requires that we resist the forces of European disintegration and maintain our longstanding insistence on a Europe whole, free, and at peace,” Biden said. “The EU has been an indispensable partner of the United States.”
Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations, warned that the US could see “a revolutionary break in more than 70 years of American foreign policy” if these institutions were to crumble.
“[It] would signal the rapid erosion of the Western liberal order that has been nurtured and defended by the US since the second World War,” Patrick told Business Insider. “I find the comments extremely concerning.”
Still, Judy Dempsey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank, said NATO and the EU are not doing to disappear anytime soon.
“The idea that NATO is about to collapse and disappear, it’s simply not in the cards,” Dempsey told Business Insider.
And the EU “is an immensely complex construction and Trump has no idea how it functions,” she said.
But both institutions are more fragile than they were even a year ago.
The most recent shock to the EU came in June when Britain voted to leave the bloc. After the shocking “Brexit” vote, geopolitical experts began speculating about which country would be next to leave.
In October, global intelligence firm Stratfor described the conundrum facing Europeans as populist and nationalist movements gain momentum across the continent.
“To knit themselves even closer together, EU states would have to compromise on issues that are too important to budge on,” a note from the firm read. “The alternative option — reversing European integration — is gaining ground, but it comes with the very real possibility of leading to the bloc’s complete dismantling.”
Patrick said that for a US president to be “encouraging and welcoming the notion that the EU would continue to dissolve” is “shocking.”
“The EU and European countries have provided the oxygen with which the rest of international life can go on,” he said.”
Fran Burwell, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, said this week that there isn’t much EU expertise in Trump’s cabinet.
“They know about NATO or have had experience in NATO, but not regarding the EU,” Burwell said. “There is no correcting mechanism at the cabinet level that we see so far that would present a counterview to what Trump has said.”
She said the EU is “in for a rough ride over the next few years.”
NATO is also under stress. Trump doesn’t seem to have a high opinion of the alliance, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been actively seeking to weaken it.
“To have the president-elect call into question the enduring commitment to NATO is disturbing,” Patrick said.
One of Trump’s main complaints about the alliance is that member countries rely too much on the US and don’t contribute enough to their own defense. He has also suggested that NATO doesn’t focus enough on counterterrorism.
Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said this week that Trump’s comments led to “astonishment and agitation” within NATO.
Patrick said Trump has challenged “the notion of a rule-bound international system” and created uncertainty about “whether the US is willing to champion this world order.”
Nevertheless, Trump does have some support from within NATO.
A top NATO general said this week that some aspects of the alliance are indeed obsolete.
“When I look at the threats we are facing now, we see that we may have focused too much, until the Ukraine crisis, we may have focused too much on expeditionary operations, especially in Afghanistan, and doing that, NATO has a bit failed to look at the change in the strategic background,” said French air force Gen. Denis Mercier, the senior NATO commander based in the United States.
“We have some structures that are obsolete.”
Complaints of obsolescence and an over-reliance on the US in NATO aren’t unique to Trump.
“Donald Trump is not the first person to suggest that NATO allies are not pulling their weight or that NATO has to have a new rationale in the post-Cold War world,” Patrick said.
But keeping NATO intact is in the interest of the US, he argued.
“There are ongoing debates about the degree to which other countries are free riding on US contributions,” Patrick said. “But the previous presidents and foreign policy experts … have invested in NATO and also in support of the EU because they see this as a case of enlightened self-interest, that the community of market democracies believe in certain things and believe in a certain type of order and that cementing that relationship was important.”
‘Trump is a new era’
Dempsey, the Carnegie fellow, agreed that the “America first” isolationism that Trump has trumpeted isn’t likely to benefit American security interests.
“[Trump] needs allies in southeast Asia, he needs allies in Europe,” she said. “Security is no longer the luxury of just one state anymore because of cyber security, hybrid war, you name it.”
It’s unclear what exactly Trump intends to do about NATO once he takes office. Despite calling the alliance “obsolete,” he has also said it is “very important to him.”
Patrick said he hopes Trump’s advisers encourage him to “offer more temperate remarks.”
“The more that the president-elect actually offers words of reassurance the better because by making very ill-considered and intemperate remarks, he risks unleashing dynamics of which he’s not entirely in control,” Patrick said.
In any case, Trump’s unpredictability was a hallmark of his run for president.
“It’s as if sometimes you think that the incoming administration is turning its back on the liberal order created after 1945,” Dempsey said. “Trump is a new era, there’s no doubt about that.”