One of the questions tied to the imminent U.S. presidential election is the future of NATO. Seeing as the old Atlantic alliance will always remain a fundamental instrument of Washington’s foreign policy, the treaty is hardly a mystery, and, therefore, it is inevitably affected by the person who sits in the Oval Office. And, in effect, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, we saw American presidents give very diverse and at times conflicting interpretations of NATO. From Bill Clinton who interpreted it simply as the long operating hand of an American “guardian of global equilibrium,” to George W. Bush, when, on behalf of his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, NATO was defined simply as “an old woman.” These characterizations were destined to be overtaken and replaced by a view of NATO as a “coalition of the willing,” an expression of a new global reality founded on alliances and variable parameters, and therefore constantly evolving.
With regard to Barack Obama, the uncertain state of foreign policy during his two terms had one sole constant: the policy of leaving it to the allies, which usually limited him to supporting regional strategies, especially in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, which had consequences which we can still see in Libya and Syria, just to give two examples. Because, deep down, what Obama’s administration was really interested in was and continues to be the battle with China in the Pacific and with India, while the Atlantic and European scenes have become increasingly more of a secondary issue, even with the Ukrainian crisis, which overwhelmingly restored the White House’s attention to Europe. An unavoidable demand on the White House’s attention, the Ukrainian conflict is a prime example of letting American allies take the initiative, as previously mentioned. In fact, the rebellion and the consequent regime change in Kiev – where there were problems with Moscow – was agitated and sustained by Poland and the Baltic states, not forgetting the blessing from Berlin, while Washington watched the events, perhaps a little too absentmindedly.
Even so, it is inevitable that with the next president, NATO’s role will undergo a metamorphosis, perhaps the most radical in its recent history, for two precise reasons. First, there is the issue of Obama’s legacy. His foreign policy notably made relations with fundamental allies difficult. In the first instance, there was Turkey, which felt cheated by Washington’s policies, and pushed toward favoring the demand for independence of the Kurds in exchange for the commitment of peshmerga fighters as infantry against the Islamic State. This was a strategy that amounted to nothing more than the administration’s declining willingness to involve American troops in the field any longer, a stubborn position supported up to even just weeks ago, when in Iraq, Obama, to a limited extent, had to retreat from when he authorized additional boots on the ground. Furthermore, Ankara is concerned about the future structure of the Middle East and is suspicious of a certain ambiguity in Washington since the uprising on July 15. Accordingly, it is openly flirting with Moscow. Not only have Putin and Erdogan signed important agreements in the economic and energy fields over the last few weeks, but they are also insisting on talking about cooperation in the area of military technology. And as the Turkish military is the second largest military in NATO, it is easy to understand why these agreements could result in an explosive confrontation with NATO should they go ahead. Moreover, an alliance between Turkey and Moscow could create a difficult situation due to Brexit, which has seen the United Kingdom, Washington’s most trustworthy ally, distance itself from Europe, and therefore have less and less influence on decisions of its now ex-partners France and Germany. Other than Obama’s policy of delegating too much and leaving too much room for maneuvering for recent members of NATO, Poland first and foremost also favors an enlargement of this alliance to the East, which has caused tension with the Kremlin at a level equal to that experienced during the Cold War. This, however, could cause severe damage to the interests of countries like Italy and Greece, who are not secondary members of NATO.
Obama’s legacy aside, the true enigma of NATO’s future is naturally tied to who will sit in the Oval Office at the beginning of 2017. Donald Trump, of course, causes concern as he represents, more so in foreign policy than in anything else, a colossal question mark. Going by his declarations, often contradictory and extemporary, the tycoon considers NATO a useless and unnecessarily expensive entity; in essence, arguments based on the old rhetorical arsenal of American isolationism, alongside other arguments that suggest a new sort of “personal diplomacy” from the aspiring president. It is still too early to hazard a guess, because no one knows whom Trump will choose as his secretary of state or his secretary of defense if he is elected.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, causes concern for the opposite reason. Her international political ideals are well known and were tried and tested when she was secretary of state, where from Foggy Bottom she favored intervention in Libya and the disastrous “Arab Spring.” It is therefore easy to foresee an extremely aggressive policy with increased tension with Moscow and Beijing. It is a more decisive interventionism than that of the reluctant Obama. Naturally, all of this translates itself into a demand for an increasing commitment to America’s allies. However, it is a request that could cause NATO to crumble, precisely due to the divergence of these interests accrued among the various NATO partners in the last eight years.