Europe heaved a collective sigh of relief at the news that Joe Biden had clinched the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Ditto international civil servants at NATO, the United Nations and its specialized agencies, climate change agitators, lovers of treaties and alliances, and countless others exhausted by the America First contrariness of Team Trump. While history has not finished judging the work of the Trump administration, it may be wise for the new Biden administration to refrain from instinctively racing to repudiate Trump’s legacy.
Donald Trump bequeathed Joe Biden a gift of leverage and newfound influence that could serve the president-elect well as he steers the United States back into the welcoming arms of international polite society.
Take NATO for example. Trump’s early failure to accept NATO’s mutual defense obligations under Article 5 was seen as American abdication of one of its most sacred defense responsibilities and met with a loud outcry. But like so many Trumpian excesses, there was a kernel of truth—and sometimes more—at the heart of these complaints. The same NATO allies who were tut-tutting about Trump’s unwillingness to honor U.S. obligations had long neglected their own obligations to NATO. And while the president may have misunderstood who owes whom what under the treaty’s terms, he completely grasped the idea that the United States has without fail invested in its own military while the majority of its allies have preferred to slosh cash into social safety-net programs.
Nor was Trump off his rocker when he asked—rudely, to be sure—whether NATO would follow tiny NATO ally Montenegro into war should that be necessary. The unpleasant, and rarely stated, truth is that there are real questions about whether the bulk of NATO would defend, say, Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia from Russian aggression. After all, Georgia and Ukraine twisted in the wind after Russian attacks. They are not NATO allies, to be sure, but have no doubt that Baltic leaders worry they would suffer the same fate. Certainly the defense spending practices of their European partners gives them plenty of reason for concern.