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NATO in a Second Trump Term

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Trump’s NATO Plans

Donald Trump in 2024 is campaigning to secure a second term in the White House on a more NATO-hostile platform than in 2016. At a rally on February 10, he reaffirmed that, if an ally fails to meet its budgetary commitment to NATO, he would not only refrain from protecting it, but also encourage Russia to do ‘whatever the hell they want’. Trump’s remark was an unprecedented denunciation of free-riding NATO allies. However, it overshadowed the details of what he might demand from NATO should he win the presidential election in November of this year.    

A national security adviser to Trump, Keith Kellogg, later added that a second Trump term would likely entail a NATO meeting in 2025 about the alliance’s future. NATO could subsequently become a ‘tiered alliance’, in which some members enjoy greater protections based on their compliance with NATO’s founding treaty. Apart from losing the U.S. commitment to collective defense in accordance with Article 5, underpaying allies could also lose access to training and shared equipment. Kellogg highlighted NATO’s Article 3, which obliges allies to make appropriate efforts to develop their individual defense capabilities. Article 3 provides no further specification, but NATO allies in 2014, after U.S. pressure, pledged to move toward spending at least two percent of their GDP on defense.

Kellogg’s words are so far the most detailed about what a second Trump presidency could mean for NATO. Europeans and Canadians should take them seriously. The Trump team seemingly plans to come into office in 2025 better prepared for fundamental change than in 2017. It can be expected that Trump back in the White House would be more preoccupied with realizing his election promises than during his first term, whose durable impact on U.S. grand strategy and foreign policy establishment was debatable. The possibility of a second Trump term suggests that the Europeans should significantly increase their defense capabilities to prepare for the eventuality of defending against Russia and supplying Ukraine without the full backing of the United States.

Europe’s Defense Posture

As of end-2023, only a third of NATO allies met the minimum two-percent-of-GDP defense-spending requirement. The underspenders include the geographically most exposed countries to Russia, namely Germany, Bulgaria, Denmark, Norway, and new member Sweden. The same applies for Canada with its proximity to Russia in the Arctic. However, the uncertainty about the U.S. commitment to individual allies can hardly be separated from the credibility of NATO’s overall deterrence. Although Congress recently passed a law barring any president from withdrawing from NATO, nothing obliges the president as commander in chief to honor the spirit of the alliance’s Article 5, whose obligation on an individual ally is already defined in loose terms (‘such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force’). The bottom line is that no U.S. troops will fight if the president does not order them to do so, and the uncertainty about U.S. commitment creates uncertainty about NATO’s collective resolve.

The uncertainty about the U.S. commitment to individual allies can hardly be separated from the credibility of NATO’s overall deterrence.

NATO has strengthened its in-place force presence on the eastern border after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The troops include a British-led battalion in Estonia, a Canadian-led brigade in Latvia, and a German brigade in Lithuania. In addition, the Baltic States are building their defensive lines toward Russia and Belarus. However, while the enhanced troops narrow the deterrence gap vis-à-vis Russia, they do not close it, because they continue to rely on the swift reinforcement of troops and equipment from west to east in the event of a war.

The new NATO Force Model envisages the arrival of 100,000 troops within ten days, an additional 200,000 troops within 30 days, and a further 500,000 within six months. The total of 800,000 troops is a serious preparation for war with Russia, but it also relies heavily on U.S. contributions. If the U.S. president in a scenario of such large-scale mobilization would refuse to commit troops and equipment to NATO’s reinforcement, it is unclear if and how fast European countries could generate the extra forces to compensate for the missing U.S. contribution.

Wavering U.S. commitment to NATO nourishes uncertainty that goes beyond the timely and sufficient mustering of conventional fighting power.

The first concern is about NATO’s nuclear deterrent vis-à-vis growing fears that Russia sees its nuclear weapons as a tool to support its expansionist foreign policy. Russia has moved tactical (low-yield) nuclear weapons into Belarus, while Russian security policy intellectuals encourage the Kremlin to exploit Western fears of nuclear war by threatening the limited use of nuclear weapons to bring the Ukraine war to a favorable end. The United States has tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. A scenario in which the United States relinquishes its nuclear sharing leaves the question open of whether Russia would be tempted to test the coercive effect on NATO of the threat of nuclear weapons, or their military effectiveness, for instance in the Suwalki Gap connecting the Baltic States with Central Europe.

The second concern is about NATO’s ‘nervous system’, also known as the C4ISR capability of the military. This includes command and control, strategic enablers and situational awareness capabilities, including satellites, to detect and trace enemy forces. It is an area where the United States is also unmatched as illustrated by the case of American warnings of a Russian troop buildup around Ukraine prior to February 2022. It is of course possible that Trump would not refuse sharing C4ISR with the Europeans, which is inexpensive and would not cost the lives of any U.S. soldier, but the eventuality of a refusal does put pressure on the Europeans to ensure their own functioning ‘nervous system’ for a concerted defense effort.

It would be a mistake for the Europeans and Canadians to treat Trump as an aberration from an ideal of a general U.S. foreign-policy continuity committed to the ‘liberal international order’.

It would be a mistake for the Europeans and Canadians to treat Trump as an aberration from an ideal of a general U.S. foreign-policy continuity committed to the ‘liberal international order’. During the Barack Obama presidency, the United States blamed the Europeans for allowing a ‘two-tiered’ NATO in the context of the Afghanistan war because some allies were unwilling to accept losses. This is what led the United States to make allies commit to the two-percent-of-GDP-defense-spending target in 2014. Trump embodies the culmination of weariness with foreign commitments and the perception of easy-riding allies in Europe, which distracts the United States not only from its real peer competitor, China, but also from economic investments in its decaying domestic base.

European Options

There is beginning anxiety in the European capitals (Berlin, Warsaw, and Copenhagen) about whether Russia in the near future might attempt an attack on NATO to test its collective preparedness. It stems from the fact that Russia currently has the upper hand in Ukraine, while the Republican majority in Congress under Trump’s influence is blocking further military aid to Kyiv over uncontrolled migration at the U.S. southern border. Although Trump recently has not said he is considering completely withdrawing from NATO, the strong external pressure on Europe to take care of its own security is giving renewed energy to discussions about enhanced European defense cooperation. Three main areas stand out.

European Options


Nuclear deterrence

Potential U.S. nuclear abandonment of one or more allies raises the main question of whether NATO can maintain the capacity to match a Russian escalation to limited nuclear war. The United Kingdom and France have smaller and less diversified nuclear arsenals than the United States, which gives NATO fewer options for a gradual escalation than Russia. It remains unclear how and if the British and French strategic nuclear forces could compensate for a potential U.S. refusal to sharing its tactical nuclear weapons, and whether they could resist Russian temptations to test NATO’s collective will to respond to a limited escalation. As for France, it recently proposed a dialogue about the role of its nuclear weapons in Europe’s collective security, but this would require a fundamental break with its national-focused deterrence tradition.    


Defense investment

The more promising aspect of a more distinct European defense capability lies with the EU’s financial and economic encouragement of joint weapons production. Existing EU efforts primarily focused on the deployment of military training and advisory missions and the long-term strengthening of Europe’s defense industry and strategic enablers. The need to supply Ukraine against an enemy with superior military capability has changed the EU’s internal dynamic, starting with the financial incentivization of member states’ supplies of weapons to Ukraine (compensation through the European Peace Facility). The possible return of Donald Trump has further given the European Commission the stimulus to leverage its Single Market in the field of defense with the newly proposed European Defense Industrial Program for member states to ramp up defense production and to buy European. However, much depends on whether the European Commission will be able to convince its member states to raise an estimated €100 billion to become a serious defense-industrial match vis-à-vis a Russia that has its economy on war footing.


Defense planning

Europe, finally, needs to plan its defense against Russia in a way that reduces NATO’s vulnerability to the eventuality that Europe might have to defend itself alone. European troops as defenders of first resort seem to be the principle behind NATO’s in-place forces in the Baltic States, which consist of a majority of European troops. Also, Poland’s significant defense investment over the past years raises confidence that European forces would be able to muster a credible first defense on the eastern border. NATO at the Vilnius Summit in 2023 adopted the regional defense plans that detail how it is supposed to provide reinforcements via activation of the NATO Response Force in case of armed aggression (their content is classified). It would seem crucial that the Europeans build a plan for European force generation and conduct military exercises in a way that prepares for the eventuality of having to fight Russia alone. This would also require strengthening military mobility in Europe to increase the likelihood that large amounts of troops and heavy equipment could travel east uninterruptedly.

Although Trump and his campaign indicated that only those allies not spending two percent of GDP on defense would be exempt from Article 5, this distinction is hard or impossible to operationalize for NATO as a whole. Maintaining NATO’s credibility in the case of a Trump return hinges on the Europeans filling in the potential gaps to the extent that is within their military capability. Whereas they seem unable to replace U.S. tactical nuclear and ‘nervous system’ capabilities in the foreseeable future, they should focus on building their conventional fighting power. This serves not only to deny Russian aggression on NATO territory but also to supply Ukraine sufficiently to defeat Russia’s ambition of militarily outproducing them.


Henrik Larsen
Henrik Larsen
Henrik Larsen is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.
Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor