For two years now, Congress has watched as the Trump administration shifted the message to the world about America’s responsibility to allies. Republicans for the most part supported the rhetoric. They stuck with him through debates about defense spending, trade and America’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
And it was probably easy to rationalize. Why shouldn’t the priority be America First? And why shouldn’t allies pay their fair share?
But the devout loyalty, at least for some, seems to be dimming. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation seeking to bar President Donald Trump from withdrawing from NATO amid renewed concerns over his commitment to the 29-nation military pact. The fact that the bill was introduced (by a Democrat) or even passed is not a huge surprise. You might say it’s part of the tit for tat that has become regular order: Trump will lambaste NATO, and Democrats will release a statement about how committed the United States is to our allies and the alliance.
But what was interesting here is the bipartisan approval — of the 357 votes for the bill, 28 were Republicans. And some of those Republicans were quite candid. “It may be a rebuke of the president or at least a rebuke of any consideration of the idea of withdrawing from NATO — but that’s our frigging job,” said co-sponsor of the bill Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. “It’s to have an opinion and make it known, not to be lap dogs to anybody, especially on foreign policy.”
It’s worth noting that this was a preemptive move. Trump had indeed threatened a break by the U.S. from NATO, but he walked it back, saying the U.S. would “be with NATO 100 percent.” So why the legislation?
Some that did vote against the bill (22 in all) had thoughts.
Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said he “was not going to play these kinds of games” considering the purpose of the resolution was not in his mind to strengthen our alliance, “but to rebuke the president.”
It’s true the bill in and of itself was a rebuke by definition, which is one reason the bipartisan support is so interesting. But whether that was the driving factor in its introduction is debatable. This is the clearest sign we’ve seen that members recognize if the position of the U.S. in the world is to be maintained, some strategically placed fig leaves may be in order.
What began as American nationalism, perhaps, has spurred something else. European allies are increasingly focused on regional security — establishing their own cooperative agreements and acquisition programs to secure borders and airspace. There’s more ownership of NATO strategies and priorities coming out of Europe, and less bowing to the United States to deliver the unified message. And the European Union is increasing its role in defense efforts in cooperation with NATO, creating an even stronger voice and influence for the region. That self-awareness of strength and influence has only been reinforced by the political disaster that is Brexit.
As I noted when we released Outlook — our collection of essays from global defense leaders: These are more emboldened NATO allies, speaking less about what NATO can do for their countries, and more about what their countries can do for NATO.
So is this a case of pushing the chicks out of the nest? Tough love, so to speak?
Can this be regarded as a victory for President Trump, in that he accomplished all he intended: making allies less reliant on the United States both financially and tactically?
The result might have been exactly that. But one has to ask whether it came with a rather costly price. What seems to be happening among NATO allies is less an acknowledgment that the balance of responsibility needed to be rewired, and more that the United States perhaps isn’t quite as important as they all once thought it was. As we thought we were.
And Congress is noticing.
Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.