Just the Facts

Five Facts on Trump Threatening to Leave NATO

By Emma Petasis
January 17, 2019 | Blog

In 2018, President Trump threatened multiple times to leave the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The group of 29 member countries is known for its collective defense apparatus and for managing crises around the world. But what would happen if the U.S. were to withdraw? Here are five facts about NATO, the U.S., and the president’s threat to leave the treaty organization.

Many of Trump’s concerns come from the amount other NATO members are spending on defense.

The president has repeatedly suggested that NATO leaders increase the percentage of their GDP allocated towards defense spending. On Wednesday, Trump suggested to NATO allies that each country should aim to increase spending to 4%, doubling the 2% NATO target. Last July, according to CNN, President Trump privately told officials he felt the alliance was a drain on U.S. spending. According to NBC News, Trump’s main criticism is “not that countries fail to meet their stated annual requirements to the alliance but that they neglect to spend enough on their own national defense, respectively.” These concerns over “burden sharing” are not new. In 2011, former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates discussed these concerns, and President Barack Obama expressed similar sentiment in 2014.

NATO Allies are most concerned with the continued U.S. commitment to Article 5.

Article 5 of the NATO treaty contains arguably the most important provision of the alliance: the provision that states an attack against one NATO member is considered an attack against all member nations. Originally created as a deterrent against Soviet aggression during the Cold War, Article 5 has been invoked only once: after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks against the U.S. In the past, Trump endorsed this mutual defense clause, such as while in Warsaw, Poland in 2017. However, Article 5 can be seen as a centerpiece of discussion between the president and European leaders; as one official told CNN, without the commitment to article 5 NATO would be crippled.

Officials fear that withdrawal from NATO significantly strengthens Russia in the geopolitical arena.

The New York Times reports that a withdrawal from NATO would significantly aid Russia’s leverage in the international community. According to American national security officials, Russia has focused on undermining the solidarity between the U.S. and the rest of NATO since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, NATO has dispatched four battalions in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, in an effort to curb any potential expansionist motivations. Weakening of NATO could disrupt this balance of power.

A withdrawal from NATO could hurt countries outside the organization.

Withdrawing from NATO does not just raise concerns for U.S. officials. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz writes that the U.S. leaving NATO could pose heightened instability in the region, hurting U.S. ally Israel. Haaretz reports that NATO “has opened doors to cooperation with non-U.S. militaries,” and helps “prevent escalatory scenarios in moments of tension between Israel and NATO members, notably Turkey.” NATO also works to broadly combat terrorism. The organization is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and currently has more than 13,000 troops training local forces in Afghanistan. With the U.S. currently contributing 22% of NATO spending, withdrawal from the organization could limit its activities in crisis management and global defense that extend to countries beyond the organization members themselves.

Presidents have withdrawn from treaties before—much to Congress’ chagrin.

According to Scott Anderson, scholar to the Brookings institution and former attorney for the State Department, the “president, in the foreign affairs realm, can exercise a lot of discretion where Congress is silent.” Anderson pointed out to Foreign Policy Magazine that President Carter withdrew from a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan in 1979, much to the frustration of Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) and others. In 1986, the Reagan Administration withdrew its treaty of friendship with Nicaragua. Most recently, in 2002, President George W. Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, prompting 32 members of Congress to sue him. That case was thrown out of U.S. District Court. Last year, a bipartisan group of senators drafted a bill to prohibit the president from leaving NATO without a two-thirds vote of the Senate. The bill never got a vote.

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