Between Trump and Clinton: what future for NATO?

Fabio Rondini

The recent result of Wisconsin Primaries has marked a surprising victory of Ted Cruz for the Republicans and Bernie Sanders for the Democrats and this unexpected result has complicated the race to the White House both for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Of course, the situation so created will not be definitive and, in any case, it will be difficult for Cruz and Sanders to replace the tycoon and the former First Lady, who still remain the two most likely candidates for the presidency at the moment.

In fact, the trend expressed by Democratic and Republican Party Primaries of 1st March 2016 has substantially marked a contraposition between Trump, for the Grand Old Party (GOP), and Clinton for the Democrats. Even though foreign policy has hardly played a decisive role in American electoral campaigns, after having briefly studied the results of Barak Obama administration, it would be useful to draft some possible scenarios that may outcome from elections, which will take place in November, both for the foreign policy domain and for the US future role in the Atlantic Alliance. This article will analyze the foreign policy approach towards the NATO for the two most likely candidates for the White House.

The awakening from the Obama dream.

The necessary starting point for this study is the awareness that, after eight years of Obama presidency, most part of its public opinion is now against what the leader has done for addressing international and security issues. The main reason for this failure lies on many events of foreign policy: firstly, the inability of its establishment to understand the political dynamics of Arab Springs in 2011 and the NATO military intervention in Libya unable to rebuild a new strong State after the destitution of Muhammar Gaddafi (with the assassination of the US ambassador Chris Stevens); secondly, the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 and its threat posed not only for Iraq, but also for the entire World; thirdly, the emerging influence of Russia both in the Middle East (Syria and Iraq) and in Eastern Europe (with the Crimean case of 2014); fourthly, the nuclear agreement reached with Iran in 14th July 2015, strongly opposed by Republicans and, finally, the uncertain military withdrawal from Afghanistan after 15 years of mission. For the security field, according to Pew Research Center data, the electoral consensus on Obama’s measures against terrorism was really low and 57% of US voters disapprove its handling with it, particularly in the aftermath of terroristic attack in Boston and San Bernardino (1).

Despite positive results, such as the signing of the environmental agreement with China in 2014 or the re-start in the diplomatic relations with Cuba in November 2015, the main failures of Obama’s foreign policy seem to come from the military field. Yet, this fact should not be surprising: in fact, as appeared in 2008, most part of American voters agreed that the main concern for their country was the economic crisis and no longer terrorism, despite the attacks of New York in 2001, in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. This trend has been proven by the electoral results: the “intellectual and peaceful” Obama, able to tackle the collapse of banks in 2009, has been preferred to the “military” John McCain, despite being more unprepared in foreign policy.

According to Jeffrey Golberg, author of an interview with the US President entitled the Obama doctrine and published on The Atlantic (2), his character can be described as a clever and prepared intellectual, rather than a strong leader able to sum up issues in order to take decisions. For instance, when in 2014 the threat posed by IS rise was clearly taking place in the Middle East, Obama, in answering in an interview, affirmed that he still had not any military strategy against IS and that he was waiting for it from the Pentagon officials, whose task was to advise the White House on the best way to implement a defined policy, but not to prepare it…

A part from this “narrative diplomacy”, Obama preference for a multilateral approach, its low interest for both Europe and NATO and its focus on the “pivot to Asia” have been also clearly expressed by a reduction in defense expenditures from 4,6% to 3,5% between 2009 and 2014 in terms of GDP. Despite this “cut”, Washington still today remains the main contributor to the Atlantic Alliance; in fact, 72% of NATO expenditures in 2015 comes from US contribution (nearly $649.9 billion dollars), the gap between Europe and US has been kept deep and, finally, this unbalance has caused many difficulties in implementing the burden sharing concept: a rebalancing approach in the economic efforts made by the Atlantic Alliance members adopted on the occasion of the summit held in Celtic Manor in 2014 (3).

Without any doubt, the world has profoundly changed since 2008 and the new President will have to cope with new and complex issues: the implementation of nuclear deal with Iran and its potential consequences for relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia; the re-build of relations with Europe and, even more, with Russia; the negotiation of TTIP; the war on terror and against IS and, lastly, the management of American decline as leading power in the international arena.

The tycoon way

In the last American elections the GOP has often given the feeling to be ineffective to adapt itself to a country in a constant changing process and the success achieved by Trump can be explained as a voting protest against the “old establishment” (4). In fact, the Republican electorate has clearly put aside Jeb Bush, that was considered the most likely candidate against Clinton before Primaries, and has preferred a more “rude” businessman like Trump, probably because he acts as an outsider from the previous establishment and he is able to talk directly to the hearts of the population.

Undoubtedly, this lack of experience could reveal itself as a weakness too: in the occasion of a public speech delivered at the Stanford University and reported by the New York Times after the Bruxelles attacks and, Hillary Clinton has defined the foreign policy proposals of Trump and Ted Cruz as “reckless actions” and that an election of Trump to the White House would be a “Christmas for the Kremlin”, arguing that the “tycoon way” would make America more insure, the World more dangerous and would put Europe in the Russian hands (5).

In effect, a considering part of Trump efforts in security policy are focused on the controversial wall at Mexico borders, as emerged also by its electoral program (6); despite criticism, we Europeans should not be surprised: facing migrants disaster even the “democratic, plural and open” Old Continent seems affected by a re-nationalization process of foreign policy.

Trump’s program incipit establishes three core points in the immigration proposal that “would make America great again”:

-          A Nation without borders is not a Nation;

-          A Nation without law is not a Nation;

-          A Nation that does not serve its own citizens is not a Nation.

Clearly, the tycoon intention would be to turn Washington approach into a more nationalist foreign policy that would enforce the trend of “detachment” from NATO began with the Obama presidency.

In addition, another target that Trump wants to address is the destruction of nuclear deal achieved in 2015 with Iran: the Republican candidate complains that the contents of this agreement are not respected by Teheran, according to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) data.

Moreover, Trump has declared that Israel security in not negotiable and that the first issue that Washington has to face in the Atlantic Alliance for the next future will be a re-definition of its role in NATO. “We pay too much (…). We must stay in the Atlantic Alliance, but we need to pay less” has told in an interview the tycoon (7). This declaration has raised a strong opposition by Clinton, who has expressed her doubts towards this approach: “Turn our shoulders to our allies or transforming our alliance into a racket protection would overturn decades of bipartisan American leadership and would send a dangerous message to both our allies and our enemies”(8).

The GOP frontrunner suggested in a Washington Post interview (9) that, while NATO “is a good thing to have (for example for the Ukraine situation)”, changes are needed, because the US is doing “all of the lifting” and its allies need to do more. After this proposal, in an interview given to “ABC News This Week” (10), Trump has expressed a stronger criticism towards American commitment in the Atlantic Alliance, defining it as “obsolete”: “NATO was done at the time of the Soviet Union, which was obviously larger – much larger than Russia today. I am not saying that Russia is not a threat, but we have other threats. We have the threat of terrorism. NATO doesn’t discuss on terrorism and do not have the right Countries for terrorism (…) What I am saying is that NATO is obsolete and it’s extremely expensive for the United States, disproportionately so and we should readjust NATO”. This view towards an unbalance between the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean is shared also by the former Secretaries of Defense Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel (11).

Hillary Clinton and the Atlantic ties.

Unlike the Republican Candidate, Hillary Clinton sustains a more committed foreign policy, promotes a higher engagement of Washington in European affairs and reaffirms a deeper consultation with Arab countries. As we can see from Clinton’s electoral program (more organized than Trump’s one), the principal targets US external relations are:

-          Keep America safe and secure by defending our core values and leading with principle.

-          Defeat ISIS, global terrorism and the ideologies that drive it.

-          Strengthen our alliances and nurture new relationships to tackle shared challenges as climate change, cyber threats and highly contagious diseases (12).

In fact, she sharply contrasted with her political opponents on NATO’s role: “Our European allies stood with us on 9/11. It’s time to return the favor”; for this reason, she suggests the creation of an intelligence framework between Washington and Europe for sharing information in cooperation with Silicon Valley industries (13).

Clinton’s position on the Atlantic Alliance is also shared by Jorge Benitez, Senior Fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center in International Security at the Atlantic Council: “A US decision to contribute less to NATO, rather than forcing partners to carry more of the weight, would simply weaken the Alliance”(14).

Even the Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen Joseph Dunford, rejecting the assertation that Atlantic Alliance is “obsolete”, as said by Trump, commented “There is a lot that NATO has done and it is doing” (15).

Another significant difference between the two candidates is, as told before, the higher level of experience in foreign policy of Clinton (even with some doubtful results). As described in an article of John Hudson, journalist of Foreign Policy, the Democrat candidate has managed to create a massive framework of hundreds of advisers able to provide the former First Lady all necessary answers to international issues and this giant “phalanx” has been one of the most important weapons against the challenger, Bernie Sanders, for the Democratic nomination (16). According to Angelo Panebianco, a Political Science Professor at University of Bologna, the right way the Europeans should look at American elections result is not from a perspective of dichotomy between “liberal” and “progressive” ideology, but in a contraposition between “isolationism” and “non isolationism”; it is not so important if the next President will be a Republican or a Democrats, but if he/she will be a isolationist or not. This is the real interest of Europe: of course, Trump’s motto “America first” and its isolationism project is not in the interests of our Continent, unlike the great commitment sustained by Clinton.

So, an engaged foreign policy…perhaps too much.

We should not forget that Hillary has been the US Secretary of State during the first Obama’s mandate between 2009 and 2013 and that her foreign policy has not always been the best for US interests. In 2011 she insisted on NATO air attacks in Libya, despite the negative Pentagon advises, and on Gaddafi’s destitution; in 2012 she tried to overshadow the events of Chris Stevens death and, once again, she demanded for another military intervention in Syria before leaving the Secretariat of State in 2013, replaced by John Kerry (17).

In the interview with Golberg cited above, even Obama has expressed his negative opinion for what US administration has done in Libya, arguing that both United States and European allies of NATO could have done much more and much better (18). The “cover” of democracy promotion and the legitimation for military initiatives provided by human rights defense is always a “point of reference” which lied behind many interventions, in order to disguise more realistic and cynical reasons.

The former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as well has criticized Clinton’s approach as Secretary of State in Iraq, arguing that the decision to withdraw American troops from this country has helped the rise of ISIS: “She helped create ISIS. Hillary Clinton could be considered as a founding member of ISIS b (…)By being part of an administration that let Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki run Iraq into the ground, so you forced the Shiites to make a choice (…)”. (19)


In conclusion, we can see how the entire American population sees the Atlantic Alliance and its role: according to Pew Research Paper data published in 28th March 2016, in Spring 2015 just 49% of voters had favorable view of NATO and this trend of consensus has been substantially unchanged if compared to the previous years. Survey results for 2015 show, moreover, several points of discussion:

-          Canada and the US are the only countries members in which more than half of responders backed using military forces if Russia got into a serious conflict with a NATO ally;

-          US voter’s support to the Atlantic Alliance is the lowest (except for Spain) among members;

-          Most of American voters agree with Trump’s criticism toward Germany insufficient participation in NATO and think that Germany should boost its military contribution in the world and more than half (54%) deem that Berlin should pay a more active military role in maintaining peace and stability in the world, while only 37% say it should not limit its role (17).

It is clear that the new President will have to take into consideration these developments and that, consequently, its foreign policy will be influenced by it.

To conclude, we can see this kind of dichotomy between the isolationist proposal of Trump and the committed approach of Clinton not only towards NATO, but in US foreign policy as a whole. The next months will be crucial for the two principal candidates: in domestic policy, they need to be confirmed by the US electorate, and in foreign policy the terroristic threat in Europe will be, in any case, a fundamental factor in relations between the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean.


  1. Glauco Maggi, Gli Americani bocciano Obama: Politica estera fallimentare, Libero Quotidiano, For Pew Research Center data, see:
  2. Jeffrey Golberg, The Obama Doctrine, The Atlantic, 10th March 2016,
  3. Gianluca Pastori, L’eredità di un Presidente. Gli Stati Uniti e le sfide del post-Obama, Osservatorio di Politica Internazionale, 21th January 2016,
  4. Davide Borsani, Partito Repubblicano: cercasi leader disperatamente, Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPIonline), 1st March 2016,
  5. Hillary Clinton attacca Donald Trump sulla politica estera: “Se vincesse sarebbe Natale per il Cremlino”, Huffington Post, 24th March 2016,
  6. For Donald Trump immigration reform:
  7. Alessandra Caparello, Elezioni USA, Trump: “Priorità cancellare intesa con l’Iran”, Wall Street Italia, 22th March 2016,
  8. Hillary Clinton attacca Donald Trump…, cit.
  9. For the entire interview
  10. For the entire interview
  11. Molly O’ Toole, Is NATO still Relevant? Trump is not the only one asking, Foreign Policy, 1st April 2016,
  12. For Hillary Clinton program on National Security:
  13. US Elections 2016: Clinton condems Trump’s plans for NATO, BBC News, 23th March 2016,
  14. Molly O’ Toole, Is NATO still Relevant?...cit
  15. Ibid
  16. John Hudson, Inside Hillary Clinton’s massive Foreign Policy Brain Trust, Foreign Policy, 10th February 2016,
  17. Gianpiero Venturini, Se il prossimo Presidente fosse Hillary Clinton…, Difesa online, 3th March 2016,
  18. Jeffrey Golberg, The Obama Doctrine…, cit.
  19. Rudolph Giuliani says Hillary Clinton could be considered as a founding member of ISIS, Huffington Post, 3rd March 2016,
  20. Bruce Stokes, Views of NATO and its role are mixed in US, other member nations, Pew Research Center, 28th March 2016,
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