BY ZHANG JIADONG
Over the course of 2018, US President Donald Trump privately told his advisers many times that he would consider pulling his country out of NATO if other members did not change the military alliance’s policies, especially increasing their military budgets. Once he even claimed that the US alliance with NATO is “costing us a fortune.”
But NATO is fundamentally different from the international organizations and mechanisms that the US withdrew from. NATO is the cornerstone of US foreign policy. The US plays an absolutely leading role in the military alliance and has not been marginalized by other members. If the US is really about to quit NATO, its allies would brace for revolutionary change in world dynamics.
Although this may probably be Trump’s bluff and bluster, it will deal a huge blow to NATO unity and US leadership. Retired Admiral James Stavridis said, “Even discussing the idea of leaving NATO – let alone actually doing so – would be the gift of the century for Putin.”
Trump’s words have already upset NATO’s agenda. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the US-led military alliance, but a celebration meeting planned for April in Washington has been downgraded to a foreign ministers’ gathering, and will not take place in the US capital.
Since former Defense Secretary James Mattis left his post at the beginning of this year, people have been more worried about the possibility of US abandonment of NATO. In a warning to Trump not to try to suddenly withdraw from NATO, the US House of Representatives on January 22 approved legislation by a bipartisan 357-22 vote. Although it has no legal binding now, it will certainly constrain the president’s act to some extent.
That Trump threatened to leave NATO serves two purposes. First, he wants other NATO members to follow the US lead or at least increase their military expenditure. This has been a long-term demand of the US, not one of Trump. The US is responsible for 72 percent of NATO spending, which is about 3.6 percent of US GDP. Comparatively, the military budgets of Germany and the UK take up 1.2 percent and 1 percent of their GDP respectively. Many Americans, especially those belonging to the lower class, think that they get the short end of the stick.
Second, Trump wants to use this as a bargaining chip with Democrats so as to lure them to make a compromise on funding the Mexican border wall. This may be a realistic goal of Trump right now.
The reason that Trump can play this “withdrawal” card is that US domestic and international laws have loopholes. The US Constitution empowers the president to propose and negotiate agreements with countries, and the Congress has the right to approve them. However, the Constitution does not include the procedure to dissolve a treaty, making this right fall under the control of the president.
In 1978, when China and the US signed the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, then President Jimmy Carter was trying to scrap the mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, and the issue came under the spotlight. As long as the Congress does not oppose it, the president has the right to abolish a treaty. But it is definitely a loophole.
NATO allies did not expect the issue either. According to Article 13 of the North Atlantic Treaty, “any Party may cease to be a Party one year after its notice of denunciation has been given to the Government of the United States of America, which will inform the Governments of the other Parties of the submission of each notice of denunciation.”
Nonetheless, those who drafted the treaty would never think that the US itself would want to pull out of the organization some day. Even Trump may not be clear whether he has the right to pull the US out of NATO.
In the past, the uncertainty surrounding the right to quit a treaty was not a big deal because the president was more willing to sign and maintain treaties than the Congress. But during the Trump administration, this tradition has been broken. For many international treaties and agreements, Trump is a reformist, not a guardian.
But Trump himself may not care about the result. He plays the “withdrawal” card at will, and his purpose is simply to cause a stir.
(The author is a professor at the Center for American Studies, Fudan University. [email protected])