As NATO Reflects on Donald Trump, Joe Biden Can't Solve Old Problems

President Joe Biden has vowed to revitalize America's traditional alliances and put multilateralism at the heart of his foreign policy over the next four years. His predecessor Donald Trump, he said, left America's global reputation "in tatters" and part of his job will be to clean up the mess.

NATO was a favored Trump punching bag. The Cold War-era alliance had been a pillar of the American-led international system since its founding and a bulwark against first the Soviet Union and later Russia, as well as global terrorism.

But Trump repeatedly undermined the bloc and even threatened to withdraw the U.S. from it. During his time in office, the former president repeatedly attacked allies and dismissed the bloc's foundational principle—Article 5, the commitment to collective defense.

The pugnacious former president also highlighted long-term American critiques of NATO, however, legitimate grievances that will not disappear just because he has left office.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who served as NATO secretary-general from 2009 to 2014 and worked with Biden when he was vice president to Barack Obama, said the alliance was "absolutely" relieved that the era of Trump is over.

"Trump is the worst president that the U.S. has ever had," he told Newsweek.

"The election of Biden and his demonstration of a clear global leadership will make the world a safer place," Rasmussen said.

The bloc will also be looking back on Trump's term to consider the lessons learned. His NATO legacy is somewhat contradictory—he was dismissive of the organisation and undermined its political cohesion, but under his watch the U.S. led the way in rising military spending by alliance members and strengthening its defenses, particularly along the Russian border.

"Militarily, I think NATO has become stronger during the Trump term," Rasmussen said, noting the rapid reaction force deployed to eastern Europe and the former president's constant pressure on allies to increase military spending to 2 percent of GDP, a target agreed in 2014 with a 2024 deadline.

"He has used harsh rhetoric to push allies to actually fulfil their commitment," Rasmussen said. How much credit Trump deserves is up for debate, but several leaders including NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg have been happy enough to praise the president.

Alexander Vershbow, former NATO deputy secretary-general, gave much of the credit to the team around him. "Trump clearly took every opportunity to bully allies and even threaten to pull out of NATO," Vershbow told Newsweek.

"But it's one of those many cases where the administration somehow managed to keep the overall policy on track, despite the president's clear lack of commitment to the alliance or to the values of the alliance."

Figures including James Mattis, Trump's first secretary of defense, were known as the "adults" in the early years of his administration, for a time curtailing his worst instincts and largely maintaining long-held foreign affairs conventions; among them membership of NATO.

"Trump's bark was worse than his bite," Verhsbow said. Nonetheless, the feeling at NATO headquarters now is "certainly relief," he added, with Biden's victory interpreted as a "reaffirmation" of the values on which the alliance is built.

Trump's real damage came on the political front. He clashed with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Turkey and the U.K. during his time in office, often opining on the domestic policies of other allied nations. His grievances dominated NATO meetings and calculations, with always unsure of how far he was willing to go.

"Politically, NATO has been weakened significantly," Rasmussen said, noting in particular Trump's hesitation about committing to Article 5. Trump's suggestion that the U.S. might not heed the call to defend nations such as Montenegro struck at the heart of the alliance, even though the president eventually walked back his comments.

This was even more distasteful to allied nations because the only time Article 5 has been invoked was in support of the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks.

Trump might be gone for now, but he is the product of a deeper seam of American nationalism, isolationism and chauvinism. Even if he does not run again in 2024, someone like him could. Trump has shown that "America First" wins votes and a younger, more politically adept figure could use his playbook to chart a course to the White House.

"Trump was a symptom of a deeply rooted feeling in the U.S. and it's not a new sentiment," Rasmussen said. A nationalist president in office fosters that isolationist sentiment. "That's why it was so important to get rid of President Trump," Rasmussen said. "It's crucial to get a person like Biden, who is strongly committed to not only the transatlantic race, but also global American leadership."

"The U.S. is the only superpower with a global reach," Rasmussen added. "And some of them may not like it, but it is the destiny of the U.S. to bear the burden of being the world's policeman."

Biden's election alone won't solve most of the problems facing NATO. During Obama's term, the U.S. pushed allies to fulfil the military spending requirements agreed in 2014. Biden will be no different, though he will do so with more tact than Trump. "The Europeans shouldn't think that they are off the hook," Rasmussen said.

Now could be the time for the Europeans to make a goodwill gesture on burden sharing, Rasmussen said. "NATO allies have learned a lesson ... it's clear to everybody that if we are to ensure continued American engagement in Europe, the Europeans carry their fair share of the burden."

Internal disagreements and external challenges also remain. Turkey's slide into authoritarianism and foreign adventurism is a big problem for the alliance. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown he is willing to blow up NATO decision-making to protect his own ambitions, and Turkish activities in Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean are all bringing Ankara into conflict with other NATO nations.

The Trump administration was unable to stop Turkey purchasing the S-400 anti-aircraft system from Russia, a deal that U.S. leaders said could threaten NATO's collective defense and risk the security of the F-35 stealth fighter program, in which Turkey was a partner.

Trump allowed Erdogan to operate largely unmolested—his critics allege this was partly because of his own financial interests in Turkey. But the strongman leader will know he is now facing a different kind of president. "Erdogan realises that he has lost his friend in the White House, and that Biden will take a tough stance on Turkey," Rasmussen said.

Erdogan's authoritarianism represents a "backing away from NATO's common values," according to Vershbow. Conservative movements in other nations including Hungary and Poland also threaten the globalist, liberal founding ethos of the alliance, something Biden wants to protect.

In addition, disagreements between member states can threaten NATO business. "The alliance is going to have to find some ways to discipline its own members to keep bilateral issues out of alliance business," Vershbow said.

Germany's Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline with Russia will remain unpopular in Washington. The White House said last week that Biden considers it a "bad deal for Europe" and his administration will review restrictions on the project put in place by Trump.

Externally, NATO must continue battling international terrorism, cyber-threats and current and future pandemics. The rise of China could also give the alliance a new competitor, one already using its mammoth economic clout to build footholds in NATO nations.

Biden has signalled that he will take a tough line on China if required, but signals from Europe indicate a softer approach. Last month the European Union signed a major investment deal with Beijing; not the kind of pushback on China the new president has promised.

"Now the Chinese have achieved a diplomatic victory," Rasmussen said. "I think they wanted to split Europe and the U.S."

All these issues will bring internal disagreements, but Biden and his team are likely to use a softer touch than their predecessors. Allies are glad that one unstable element is out of the mix but—Vershbow said—"there's trepidation that the U.S. may actually put them on spot to do more."

US, German flags during NATO drills
American and German flag patches are pictured on the uniforms of military personnel ahead of NATO's Defender 2020 drills at the Port of Bremerhaven, Germany, on February 21, 2020. PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP via Getty Images/Getty