Australian Outlook

In this section

Australia-NATO Cooperation and Trump

18 Jan 2017
By Will Leben
NATO Meeting Photo Credit: US Department of Defense (Wikimedia Commons) Creative Commons

The closing months of 2016 provided ample fodder for sceptics on the future of NATO as well as critics of the Australian relationship with the Atlantic alliance. The questions about NATO come at a time of unstable global security, amid ongoing tensions with Russia and the uncertainty of the Trump presidency. What does this mean for Australian foreign policy?

Long-mooted predictions of NATO’s demise have once again reared their heads. Can an alliance, already struggling to juggle traditional European concerns with a range of global threats, survive the shocks of a Trump presidency?

The February 2016 Australian Defence White Paper reiterated Australia’s commitment to a relationship with NATO, which was initially formalised in the 2013 partnership agreement. Beyond Afghanistan, which catalysed the formalisation of Australia-NATO ties, Australian policy has emphasised the shared interest between NATO and Australia in a rules-based global order and stated that growth in the relationship should be based on “reciprocity” and select “collaboration where the interests of NATO members and Australia align”.

The open question is how this policy adapts to recent developments. Recent Russian actions through to terror threats and non-traditional security issues all represent threats to the rules-based global order; Australian policy needs to be clear in defining what constitutes the core of shared interests upon which Australia-NATO cooperation will occur.

This clarity is even more important in light of at least two prominent developments. The first is Russian assertiveness, which has already been playing out for a number of years—as evidenced by a more interventionist stance in protecting its interests in Syria, a willingness to flex its cyber muscle against American elections, and the simmering conflict in Ukraine.

The second is President-elect Trump’s view of security and the alliance. While it may be hasty to pin the future of the alliance on the still erratic views of the new president, it remains inescapable that he has, on the record, refused to affirm the American security guarantee to NATO allies enshrined in Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty.

This refusal is tied to his vocal and consistent criticism of allies not paying their share, and he has gone so far as to label the alliance “obsolete”. If this stance was not unnerving enough for European countries uneasy with current Russian actions, Mr. Trump’s warmth towards President Putin and his rejection of official concerns about Russian interference in the US election, have failed to cool nerves. While any rapprochement with Russia should be welcomed as a positive development, it is reasonable to question the cost of such a development.

Partially related to all these friction points is the post-Cold War expansion of the alliance. The eastward European expansion of NATO toward Russian borders, as well as its expansion as a global security provider, have created a particular fragility within the alliance. The likes of Germany and France, concerned more with terror threats and their role in European immigration, stand apart in mindset and finances from newer, smaller members genuinely uneasy about a resurgent Russia. Within this unclear picture, NATO remains at least rhetorically committed to select cooperation with a number of partners around the globe, Australia included.

The distinction between solid policy intention and fluid political rhetoric on the part of Trump is still very unclear, and as such, so are the consequences of his election for Australia and NATO. In the last days leading up to the President-elect’s inauguration, American deployments of an armoured brigade combat team and special forces have gone ahead in Eastern Europe. Whether these assurances will persist under the new administration will soon be seen. The new administration seemingly espouses a foreign policy both more interventionist and more isolationist than its predecessor. It thus cannot be entirely ruled out that it may actually find renewed use for the Atlantic alliance in global operations.

On balance, the outlook is not positive for NATO. Developments in Europe and the United States that undermine the core of the alliance, based on a measure of political unity and formalised in Article Five’s collective defence clause, will leave little room for NATO as a coherent global player. Nonetheless, an Australian relationship with NATO remains a sensible investment in a security environment characterised by this still-growing uncertainty.

American disengagement from NATO may mean that, rather than the Australia-NATO relationship representing an adjunct to the Australia-United States alliance, ties with NATO may increasingly represent modest but more independent engagement with European partners.

A small handful of Defence and Foreign Affairs staff allow a significant level of visibility on NATO decision making. This cooperation means that Australia is better positioned to participate in NATO operations should they occur, continue cooperation on technical issues and engage on a bilateral and multilateral basis with countries our strained diplomatic network would otherwise fail to reach.

Australia should simply continue to quietly assess whether this investment remains sensible.

Will Leben is a junior officer in the Australian Army. This work is his own and does not represent the views of the Australian Government, Department of Defence or Army.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.