The Shadow of Exit From NATO

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: The Trump administration’s contentious relationship with NATO is not as uncommon as the administration’s critics suggest. In fact, a “shadow of exit” has hung over the United States’ membership in the alliance since the beginning.

Unlike his predecessors, President Trump has taken a more coercive stance towards U.S. allies.

Specifically, the president has repeatedly suggested that the United States might leave NATO in order to “wring concessions” from allies on issues ranging from trade to defense spending. Many of the administration’s critics are worried that this allegedly unprecedented attitude will permanently damage U.S.-European relationships.

But the administration’s position is far less unprecedented than critics let on.

Even in the early days of the Cold War, U.S. leaders saw transatlantic alliances as temporary things. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower each saw U.S.-European relationships, including NATO, as a “temporary expedient” until a Western European alliance formed to act as a counterbalance to Russia.

Presidents frequently used the threat of U.S. withdrawal from NATO to extract concessions from European allies. Even President Kennedy, who saw the alliance as a more permanent thing, threatened to pull out to make France and Germany fall in line with U.S. interests.

History shows that the Trump administration’s position on NATO is strategic and sustainable.

While it’s true that allies need to be reassured in order to preserve strategic relationships, the fact is that American alliances have traditionally been more fractious than conventional wisdom lets on. Indeed, such “coercive” stances can serve to advance U.S. interests without imperiling alliances, including NATO.

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