Theme: Political Economy | Content Type: Blog

Relations Between the U.S. and Allies are Souring. What Next for NATO?

Carla Martinez Machain, Michael Allen and Michael E Flynn


Nik Shauliahin

| 8 mins read

U.S. President Donald Trump has long argued that NATO member states are shirking their commitment to the alliance. He has pressured allies to make greater monetary contributions to NATO, demanding member states spend at least 2 per cent of their GDP on defense per the 2014 Wales Summit, which gives members until 2024 to meet the 2 per cent benchmark. This demand, including Trump’s erroneous assertion that NATO members owe the U.S. money for years they have underspent on, has dominated the Trump administration’s rhetoric towards NATO. 

Burden-sharing is the concept that the U.S. and its allies will share the costs of providing for the collective defence. These arrangements between the U.S. and its allies are jointly beneficial as allies gain additional security and the U.S. gains a host of other benefits, including the ability to influence allied foreign policy, respond to regional crises, and accrue soft power.

However, allies’ willingness to pay for the presence of U.S. forces and to maintain their alliance ties with the U.S. are conditional upon how they view the benefits of those arrangements, and how they view the U.S. government and military presence within their territory. Our research shows that the tide is turning, which may affect the level of cooperation in the alliance going forward.  

Souring relations between U.S. and NATO allies

In the case of NATO allies, tensions were already rising in the lead-up to the most recent NATO summit, with French president Emmanuel Macron noting in an interview with The Economist that NATO was experiencing “brain death”.

At the summit, it became increasingly evident that relations between the U.S. and other NATO members were souring. Trump illustrated this in referring to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “two-faced” and leaving the summit early after a video apparently showed Trudeau and other world leaders mocking Trump.  

As part of our research on perceptions of the U.S. military abroad, we ran large-scale surveys (1,000 respondents per country) in several countries. Figure 1 shows respondent attitudes from NATO member countries surveyed in the fall of 2018 towards three groups of U.S. actors – the U.S. government, U.S. people, and U.S. military forces stationed in the respondent’s country.

In almost every country, views of the U.S. government were the least favourable, as compared to views of the U.S. military and the U.S. population as a whole. The generally positive views of the American people show that this isn’t a case of broad anti-Americanism, but rather distinctly negative views of the U.S. government.  

We also spent some time interviewing politicians, activists, journalists, and members of the U.S. military in Germany and the United Kingdom to ask them how they viewed the U.S. presence and their country’s relationship with the United States.

Many of the people we talked to spoke positively about the United States; the most common complaints dealt with traffic and noise from the bases. Some interview subjects detailed issues with the use of drones or possession of nuclear weapons, but even the opposition party members of parliament we interviewed in the U.K. expressed generally positive views of the NATO alliance. 

The case of Turkey?

Trump and Turkish president Recep Tayipp Erdogan had a cordial interaction at the NATO summit and even held a previously unscheduled meeting. This is notable given that Turkey – a NATO ally – has recently clashed with the United States over weapon systems, and concerns that Turkey might target Syrian Kurds who fought alongside the U.S. in Syria. Additionally, despite being a NATO ally, Turkey maintains a positive relationship with Russia, which has further strained relations with the U.S. 

Our survey results show that despite hosting U.S. forces, members of the Turkish population express negative views of the United States government, military, and people. As shown in Figure 2, Turkish respondents not only expressed some of the most negative views of U.S. actors, but it is the only NATO country surveyed where we find more negative views of the U.S. military than of the U.S. government.

Additionally, among the NATO allies surveyed, Turkey has the highest rate of negative perceptions of the U.S. population compared to other NATO members. We conducted this phase of the survey before the most recent dispute about the role of Kurdish forces in Syria yet it still shows the likely souring of relations between the U.S. and Turkey.

What is next for NATO?

If the U.S. is perceived as an unreliable ally, U.S. allies may turn to other great powers, like China. Already, U.S. allies have been willing to join the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) despite U.S. opposition, like the United Kingdom in 2015. A recurring theme in our interviews was that while members of the general population saw China’s interests as purely economic and not political, political and military leaders worried about increased Chinese influence in parts of the world traditionally under the U.S. sphere of influence, such as Africa. They expressed similar wariness of Russia’s efforts to reassert its global influence. Continued U.S. and NATO disagreement may further open the door to Russian and Chinese influence. 

Cause for optimism

Despite existing disagreements, there may yet be some cause for optimism. Though the attention-grabbing speeches and high-profile events certainly cause concern about the future of NATO, we also found evidence that NATO allies remain committed to joint security. A Labour member of parliament interviewed in July of 2019 noted that despite the attention that President Trump’s tweets receive, the importance of the alliance is well understood among many politicians.

For example, one interview subject noted that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit (with 50 U.S. representatives) to the Munich Security Conference in February of 2019 dramatically decreased anxiety among their European counterparts about the U.S. commitment to European Security. 

This individual went as far as to say that the alliance is in a better place than it was before, given the shared threat of Putin and an increasingly bold Russian foreign policy. They noted that it wasn’t not just the fear of “Russian aircraft carriers coming along the channel,” but also the threat of election interference from Russia that highlighted the importance of joint defence. They went on to say that “giving people a sense of inclusion and partnership is very important.” Yet, they also said “I don’t know that the way of doing business in the U.S. translates well to Europe.” 

It is clear that increasing the costs of U.S. deployments, whether in monetary compensation or polarizing rhetoric, will make it difficult to maintain the level of cooperation that the alliance has historically maintained. 

Parts of this article are based on work supported by, or in part by, the Minerva Research Initiative, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, and the U.S. Army Research Office under grant number W911NF-18-1-0087. The opinions and interpretations are those of the authors and not the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.

  • Carla Martinez Machain

    Carla Martinez Machain

    Carla Martinez Machain is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kansas State University.

    Articles by Carla Martinez Machain
  • Michael Allen

    Michael Allen

    Professor Michael Allen is an international relations scholar at Boise State University.

    Articles by Michael Allen
  • Michael E. Flynn

    Michael E Flynn

    Michael Flynn is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University.

    Articles by Michael E Flynn