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NATO Allies Watch US Election Amid Strained Transatlantic Ties

By Henry Ridgwell October 07, 2020

America's allies in Europe are watching closely as the U.S. presidential election enters its final leg.

Transatlantic relations have at times been strained since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, and analysts say some European capitals hope for a return to more stability under a Joe Biden presidency.

Other European NATO allies have welcomed Trump's demands for Europe to pull its weight and meet military spending targets, as the continent faces several strategic challenges on its borders.

Shortly after his 2016 election victory, Trump called NATO "obsolete," because he said the organization "wasn't taking care of terror." That alarmed NATO allies shaken by Russia's 2014 forceful annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine.

Different tone

By 2017, Trump's tone had changed. Hosting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House in April of that year, Trump reaffirmed his support for the alliance.

"The secretary-general and I had a productive discussion about what more NATO can do in the fight against terrorism. I complained about that a long time ago, and they made a change. And now, they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete," Trump told reporters.

For Europe, the unpredictability has been difficult, security analyst Julie Norman of University College London said in a recent interview with VOA.

"His foreign policy has tended to be rather rash, rather unpredictable. And of course for allies, that's not really something that you want. You want an ally who's going to be reliable, especially an ally like the United States that traditionally has been such a heavyweight," Norman said.

What do NATO allies think of Biden? Since the presidential campaign has had little debate on foreign policy so far, according to Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform, they must look at Biden's record.

"We know that Trump is no friend at all of NATO, and we believe that Biden, from his past record, is much more favorable to NATO. And NATO remains the bedrock of British security, as well as European security more generally," Bond told VOA.

Trump's supporters often say he should be judged on his actions rather than his words. The president oversaw the deployment of U.S. troops and hardware to Poland in 2017 as part of NATO's Enhanced Forward Presence mission, the biggest deployment since the Cold War. Trump remains a popular figure in Poland and other former Soviet states.

"For some of those states, there would still probably be a preference for Trump to stay in the White House," Norman said.

Hard truths for Europe?

Trump has accused Germany of being "delinquent in its payments" to NATO and plans to withdraw 20,000 troops stationed in the country. While the tone is abrasive, the president tells truths that Europe does not want to hear, argued political commentator Matthew Parris, a former British Conservative member of Parliament.

"He has, in an instinctive way, been right about quite a few things — that perhaps there was a need to push back against China on trade issues. Perhaps America is going to end up in a very similar place to Britain on COVID. Perhaps nobody actually knows the answer, and we don't know the answer any better than Donald Trump. He's right about NATO spending. He's right about many European countries not pulling their weight," Parris told VOA in a recent interview.

Trump has taken an increasingly tough stance on China. That may not change, whoever wins the White House, said Norman.

"Many Democrats, Biden included, share some of the concerns that Trump had around China and that many Europeans have around China, as well," she said. "That's in regard to security issues, and to some degree, and perhaps talked about more on the European side, human rights issues, as well."

Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and Americas program at the Chatham House policy institute in London, said the biggest transatlantic divergence has been on climate change. Many in Europe see Biden as more sympathetic to their viewpoint.

Stakes are high

"Here is a value and a collective problem that Europeans can only achieve a solution to if they work with the United States, and if they work with China. … So, I think it's very clear to Europe that the stakes could not be higher in this election from what is arguably the most important issue, at the international level, over the next 10 or 15 years," she said.

From Russia to conflicts in Libya and the Middle East to tensions with Turkey, Europe faces numerous strategic challenges. Despite the European Union's call for the bloc to be more self-sufficient, analysts say the U.S. will likely play a key role in each of these arenas. Allies are watching closely as the United States chooses its next commander in chief.

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