Preventing a Credibility Crisis in America’s Most Important Alliance


In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Donald Trump revisited one of his favorite hobby horses: free-riding alliance partners. He proclaimed:

We expect our partners, whether in NATO, in the Middle East, or the Pacific — to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations, and pay their fair share of the cost.

Even as the president affirmed the historic bonds uniting the transatlantic community, no words can paper over Trump’s infamously skeptical attitude toward allies in general and NATO in particular.

Of all the heterodox statements Trump made over the course of the campaign, transition, and his first weeks in the White House, two continue to reverberate in European capitals: first, his assertion that NATO is “obsolete” and, second, the contention that the U.S. commitment to Article 5 — NATO’s security guarantee — could be conditional upon a distressed ally’s defense spending. Even if these statements were intended as empty rhetoric, they directly undermined the credibility of America’s alliance commitments. In Trump’s mind, it seems this uncertainty is a positive: If, as he believes, the paramount challenge is negotiating a better deal with NATO, then calling the American commitment into question is a surefire way to make allies feel insecure enough to increase military spending.

Yet such an approach fundamentally misunderstands the U.S. national interest. Since the early Cold War, successive presidential administrations have had to balance competing imperatives guiding its NATO commitment. Deterrence required that Washington signal its ironclad commitment in order to convince adversaries that the United States would come to allies’ defense, even at a high cost. Yet, the more credible the U.S. commitment to collective defense, the greater the incentive for allies to under-provide for their own security. These two requirements are still in competition today. Yet, while both concerns are legitimate, the catastrophic consequences of deterrence failure are ultimately much greater than the costs of free-riding. The paramount task for the White House should be to deter aggression by credibly committing to fight for U.S. allies, rather than convincing them to pony up by credibly threatening to abandon them.

The Costs of Alliance Defense

Trump is not the first president to highlight unequal burden-sharing as a serious problem for NATO. In his foreign policy interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, President Barack Obama lamented: “free riders aggravate me.” Upon his departure, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned of “a dim if not dismal future” if NATO member states did not start contributing more to the alliance. The numbers speak for themselves. Last year, the United States spent 3.61 percent of its GDP, or $664 billion, on its military. This was not only the most of all NATO member states, but the most of any country in the world and more than twice as much as the rest of NATO combined. By contrast, only four other nations met the NATO threshold of 2 percent of GDP spent on defense: the United Kingdom, Poland, Estonia, and Greece.

Of course, the United States has far-reaching security commitments, and its defense outlays do not exclusively contribute to addressing NATO’s security needs. Even so, throughout the history of the alliance, and especially since the end of the Cold War, America’s transatlantic allies have systematically under-provided for their own security. Critics contend that U.S. defense spending effectively subsidizes European welfare states, allowing allies to spend on domestic programs rather than on national security. This behavior is far from surprising: Confidence in American protection creates an incentive to allocate more resources to butter than guns.

The insufficiency of European militaries for deterrence and defense of Europe — not to mention out-of-area operations with implications for continental security, like the 2011 military intervention in Libya — has real and deleterious consequences for U.S. global force posture. In the absence of European self-protection, the United States continues to permanently station forces in Europe. Even after reducing troops under European Command by more than 200,000 after the end of the Cold War, prior to the initiation of the recent NATO buildup in 2014, 67,000 nevertheless remained. With recent deployments in response to growing tensions with Russia, U.S. troops levels are the highest since the Cold War ended. This presence trades off with other strategic interests, as demonstrated by the Obama administration’s decision in 2012 to withdraw two permanently stationed brigade combat teams to free up resources for the pivot to Asia. Moreover, the requirements for European defense necessitate decisions about the U.S. military’s force structure — for example, investments in additional tanks — that do not translate well to other theaters.

Yet the story is not quite so simple. Despite insufficient defense spending, NATO allies have nevertheless supported U.S. foreign policy in substantial ways. The alliance invoked Article 5 — for the only time ever — after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, and proceeded to contribute thousands of troops to the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan. Although the United States provided indispensable capabilities for the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, France and the United Kingdom flew more than 40 percent of the sorties and destroyed over a third of the overall targets. In addition, as French diplomat Simond de Galbert argues, European partners have played a central role in major diplomatic efforts, like the Iran deal (which was aided by E.U. sanctions), negotiations to end the Russian intervention in Ukraine, and climate change negotiations.

What’s more, recent trends suggest the burden-sharing picture is beginning to improve. In 2016, NATO’s European members and Canada increased expenditures by 3.8 percent, exceeding 2015 spending levels by approximately $10 billion. French and German military budgets are ticking upward, and Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania are getting closer to fulfilling their 2 percent commitments. The Russian menace is a primary driver of this trend, which predated Trump, and will likely continue so long as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues saber-rattling.

The Price of Deterrence

Although NATO spent most of the last three decades without a clear threat to its territory, Russia’s resurgence has once again raised the specter of aggression from the east. Putin has made no secret of his animosity toward the West, and the past three years have seen increasingly brazen moves from Moscow. Russian political interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election election, as well as the political processes of numerous NATO allies, indicates an increasingly aggressive approach. Militarily, Russia’s incursions into NATO airspace signal a greater appetite for risky provocation, and the build-up of forces in the Western Military District provides additional cause for concern.

While the Kremlin’s intentions remain fundamentally unknowable, it is fathomable that Putin could attempt to deal NATO a death blow by directly challenging the Article 5 mutual defense commitment, most likely through military intervention in the Baltics. NATO would then face an agonizing choice between tolerating the territorial violation of a member state and engaging Russia in a shooting war with a serious risk of nuclear escalation. Pushing Russian forces back across their own border, or using military action to compel such a withdrawal, would be immensely challenging. Some defense analysts are skeptical of whether NATO could even succeed in defending the Baltics.

The United States has an overwhelming interest in preventing a high-stakes NATO-Russia showdown over the Baltics (or any similar contingency) by maximizing the credibility of the alliance’s commitment to collective defense. Academic studies suggest two critical determinants of credibility: power and resolve. Power refers to the need for commitments to be backed by requisite capabilities — usually military capabilities — to fulfill the threat or promise in question. The second component, resolve, refers to a state’s willingness to risk war in order to uphold its commitments. For the purposes of deterrence, this resolve must be perceived by adversaries. Ultimately, this means that adversaries must believe that the committed state both can and will meet its commitments, even if doing so is potentially dangerous.

NATO has already taken important steps toward enhancing the capabilities available to deter aggression against the Baltics. As the Russian threat has resurfaced, particularly since the seizure of Crimea in early 2014, the alliance has shifted its attention from assurance and readiness to deterrence and defense. The Wales Summit in September 2014 marked the beginning of this transition, with NATO approving measures to enhance the responsiveness of the NATO Response Force, including through the creation of a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force capable of responding to crises within days. Leaders at the July 2016 Warsaw Summit agreed to intensify this build-up. They announced the deployment of rotational battalions to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, as well as a “tailored forward presence” in Romania and Bulgaria. According to the Obama White House, “these measures represent the largest reinforcement of NATO’s collective defense and deterrence since the end of the Cold War.”

The Risks of Irresolution

A charitable read of Trump’s position on NATO could suggest that the president’s hard-bargaining with U.S. partners is in service of a stronger — and thus more credible — alliance. In a recent War on the Rocks article, Peter Viggo Jakobsen presented this strategic case. Jakobsen argued that Trump is intentionally “scaring allies into spending” with the goal of ultimately strengthening the NATO alliance. There are numerous reasons to doubt this interpretation, most notably, Trump’s tactical-transactional worldview and his campaign’s ties with Russia. But even if Jakobsen correctly discerns Trump’s intentions, his justification neglects the critical second element of credibility equation: resolve.

Even during the Cold War, American resolve to defend NATO was difficult to establish. This is the classic dilemma of extended deterrence: It only works if adversaries are convinced that the guarantor state will risk horizontal or vertical escalation of a crisis in order to defend its core interests. During the Cold War, Europeans worried about whether Washington would willingly “trade” Berlin or Paris for New York or Los Angeles if a European war went nuclear. In the present climate, a similar question could be asked about the costs the United States is willing to incur for Tallinn or Riga.

An aggressive move by Russia would likely attempt to take advantage of this uncomfortable reality. One frequently cited scenario entails fomenting unrest among ethnic Russians in the Baltic states and using that chaos as a pretext for a military incursion into Latvia or Estonia to “protect” supposedly vulnerable populations. Perhaps, like in Crimea, Russia would use “little green men” rather than uniformed military personnel. Such a move would be a classic instance of what Thomas Schelling called “salami tactics”: undermining NATO’s mutual defense pact with a step that seems minor compared with the potential consequences of an escalating conflict with Russia.

Deterrence is notoriously hard to measure, so it is impossible to specify the precise relationship between capabilities and resolve in establishing the credibility of the American commitment to NATO. As a nuclear alliance, the capabilities challenge has generally been in creating rungs on the escalatory ladder, rather than ensuring NATO’s ability to inflict devastating retaliatory destruction against an aggressor. In a fundamental sense, then, mutually assured destruction with Russia increases the likelihood that a deterrence failure would result from Moscow’s perception of irresolution by Washington to risk nuclear war to defend NATO. As Putin well understands, the decision to respond to a Russian military probe into NATO territory would ultimately lie with Trump. The more uncertainty that surrounds his resolve to fight to defend NATO, the greater the probability that Putin will take a gamble.

Closing the Resolve Gap

Given the president’s comments to date, the Trump administration should take tangible actions that overcome the credibility deficit created by past rhetoric. First, Trump should fulfill his commitment to attend the NATO Summit this May. His presence at the summit will be particularly symbolic, as the meetings will take place at the new alliance headquarters in Brussels. Second, the president should tone down his public language on burden-sharing while Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson privately emphasize the importance of demonstrable progress on defense spending in conversations with NATO allies. Mattis and Tillerson could work with allies to develop a package of institutional reforms and national commitments for Trump to announce (and claim credit for) in a speech at the Brussels Summit. Third, the administration should increase funding for the European Reassurance Initiative — a program initiated by the Obama administration to increase the U.S. military presence in Europe and enhance NATO readiness — as part of its broader expansion of military spending. Bolstering this initiative will enhance NATO’s deterrence and defense by increasing military capabilities on the ground in Europe, while also signaling the administration’s intent to remain committed to NATO. Although these steps will not overcome enduring questions about the president’s coziness with Russia or skepticism about the European project, they will surely be far more effective than Vice President Mike Pence’s bromides at the Munich Security Conference in shoring up the resolve gap.

In today’s security environment, the critical challenge is thus deterring Russian attempts to undermine the alliance through limited military probes. Of course, strengthening European militaries — through greater defense spending as well as smarter defense spending — is a necessary component of the deterrence equation. But the cornerstone of NATO has always been the United States’ security guarantee, backed by the vast American nuclear arsenal. With mounting evidence of Russia’s will to revise the U.S.-led global order, particularly in Europe, now is exactly the wrong time to call the U.S. commitment to NATO into question. Indeed, Trump’s mercurial attitude toward NATO risks transforming the alliance’s perennial credibility problem into a full-blown crisis.


Dr. Rebecca Friedman Lissner is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.