The Accidental Trumpification of NATO

In a narrow but important sense, the world has become more amenable to the former president. And yet.

A red baseball cap with the NATO insignia on the front
The Atlantic; Getty

If Donald Trump returns to power in 2025, he will find a world starkly different from the one he tried to construct while president. All hopes of normalizing relations with Russia have been obliterated in the slaughter of Ukraine. China is more powerful than ever. Iran is closer to acquiring nuclear weapons. And Kim Jong Un is still behaving like Kim Jong Un.

But, in a narrow yet important sense, the world has become more Trumpian since he left office. The NATO that met in Madrid this past week to agree on a new strategy to defend the West has started to resemble the kind of organization Trump and his wing of the Republican Party said they always wanted.

NATO’s European members are paying more for their own defense, the alliance is more Eastern European in its outlook and positioning, and, for the first time, it is explicitly focused on America’s great-power rivalry with China. Trump is not primarily responsible for these changes—for that he can thank Vladimir Putin—but they nevertheless signal an important moment for the West, as Europe moves to more closely align itself with American domestic political concerns. Europe’s shift is part of a bid to protect the status quo that has existed since NATO’s founding, but which is now threatened both by Russia’s aggression and by the U.S.’s growing focus on its great-power rival in the 21st century: China.

As well as NATO becoming more American in outlook, the grand strategies of countries that Trump so obviously distrusted—Germany and France in particular—have never been more irrelevant. Germany has been forced to abandon its long-held reticence to increase defense spending as well as its planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia. France, which has long sought a greater role for the European Union rather than NATO, today faces a continent that wants more NATO, not less, which, as France well understands, means support for U.S. primacy.

A similar reprioritization is taking place in the G7, another international organization Trump seemed to loathe, and that also met this past week, transformed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into a body that more obviously serves the American interest.

Notably, President Joe Biden has consciously rejected President Barack Obama’s prioritization of the wider G20 group of advanced economies, which included developing democracies such as India and Indonesia, but also Russia and China. In one of Obama’s first forays onto the world stage, he said that the G20 would from then on be the more important international format, better representing the 21st century than the kind of world where “there’s just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy.” His vice president has decided to reverse course and return the G7 to its former role, an organization that looks much more like a group of wealthy Western powers deciding how to get their way.

If Trump regains power, then, he should have far less to complain about than he did during his time in office, when Europe was clearly failing to share the burden of its own defense with the U.S., while striking independent trade and energy deals with both China and Russia. Then, it was legitimate for Trump to ask whether Europe was taking the U.S. for a ride. That grievance looks a lot less real today, even as Europe doubles down in its dependence on the U.S.

Together with bipartisan support in Congress for America’s military backing of Ukraine and its economic sanctions on Russia, many have taken solace in the notion that NATO—and support for it—is growing stronger than ever. And yet with Trump, there is always an “and yet.”

The first is that there remains an obvious, growing, and valid American grievance with Europe that Trump will almost certainly pick up should he return to the White House. Led by France, Europe is erecting barriers to protect its defense industry: New rules mean that the moment a European defense firm accepts a single euro from the EU, partnering with non-EU companies becomes almost impossible because of strict restrictions on intellectual property, a kind of poison pill.

This kind of protectionism was already being noticed by Trump toward the end of his first term, according to one senior NATO official I spoke with, but it has moved on several steps since. The idea behind these regulations is to build up Europe’s own military industrial capacity so that it can defend itself better—a form of burden sharing. And in some senses this would be good for the West collectively. However, such a move only emphasizes the bigger problem: Why should the U.S. pay for Europe’s defense if Europe is building obstacles to American defense firms? If the West is worth defending collectively, then how can it continue raising walls between its members? As one European government official told me: “Putting barriers around the West is fine. Putting them within the West is not.”

The second “and yet” is both shallower and potentially more important: Trump himself. It is naive to think that his problems with Europe will ever be solved, that once Europe answers his criticisms, all will be well. Trump’s issues with Europe are instinctive rather than specific. Where he has policy differences, they are surely mere expressions of his “American first” mentality and a deeper philosophical rejection of his nation’s Western allies. At heart, Trump does not really believe in the American-led Western order, convinced that it imposes too many burdens on the U.S., which America does not need or benefit from. In essence, he believes that the U.S., as the strongest nation on Earth, would be better off in direct competition with everybody else, not subsidizing its supposed allies, who then go on to compete with America for business.

As Fiona Hill, Trump’s former Russia adviser, told me, what he really wants is for Europe to completely open itself up to American industry—and for America not to open itself up to Europe in return. When Trump looks at NATO and the G7, he sees a protection racket, not an American order wherein power brings responsibility.

In private, as the NATO official I spoke with admitted, Europeans are already in a state of depressed panic about a possible second Trump term, which many of them now see as inevitable. If his first term and the direction of policy since he left office are anything to go by, there is no need for melodramatic worry in Europe. During his term, NATO did not collapse and the American presence in Europe actually increased. His cajoling, threats, and insults—however coarse and undiplomatic—did create a sense of urgency among European leaders that forced them to answer his concerns. Strategically, though, Europe did not change course. Germany and France continued to push for separate relations with Russia and China, and greater European autonomy from America. What really changed things was not Trump, but Putin’s megalomania.

And on this point, it is important to recognize that Trump was no oracle. In 2018, as he wrapped up the NATO summit in Brussels, he declared himself happy, but fired a pointed warning shot at Germany over its gas pipeline with Russia. “Frankly,” he said, “maybe everybody is going to have a good relationship with Russia, so there will be a lot less problem with the pipeline.”

Trump might not be a brandy-drinking statesman like Churchill and Roosevelt, but does anyone seriously think that just because much of the Western world has become more to his taste, he no longer yearns to sit like those grand figures in a room with Putin and Xi Jinping, deciding things alone, far away from America’s pesky allies? For Trump, Europe can become less annoying, but the West is not the world he wants to lead.