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Is NATO still relevant?
03:10 - Source: CNN

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Donald Trump suggests the U.S. may not necessarily come to the aid of a NATO ally

Many analysts believe NATO will not face the same pressure as other multilateral partnerships

Trump's own running mate Mike Pence even seemed to disagree with him

Washington CNN  — 

Last month it was Brexit, but could NATO be facing Amerixit or even Turkxit?

The Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, sparked a furor on both sides of the Atlantic by implying Wednesday that under his leadership, the United States would not immediately defend a NATO ally that was under attack.

When asked if he thought the U.S. should come to the aid of NATO members being attacked by Russia, Trump told The New York Times interview, “If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”

Many analysts have described Trump’s campaign as being fueled by global populist trends that include opposition to free trade deals, immigration and multilateral organizations like the EU and NATO.

“Elites and elite projects of different kinds seem to be under attack,” said Ian Lesser of the German Marshal Fund of the United States.

But could NATO face the same political opposition that’s tearing at the EU and free trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

Probably not. Here are some reasons why:

Both Democrats and Republicans support NATO

A bipartisan group of U.S. politicians and former military officials rushed to NATO’s defense in the wake of Trump’s comments.

Republican Senate Majority Leader and Trump backer Mitch McConnell told CNN’s Manu Raju that he “totally disagrees” with Trump’s statements regarding NATO.

“NATO is the most important military alliance in world history. I want to reassure our NATO allies that if any of them get attacked, we’ll be there to defend them,” McConnell told Politico.

Opinion: The danger of Trump’s NATO comments

And NATO’s former military leader, retired U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, called Trump’s comments “destabilizing” and said they created a “deep uncertainty in the hearts of our allies and giving immense good cheer to (Russian President) Vladimir Putin,” in an op-ed in Foreign Policy.

And even Trump’s own running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, seemed to contradict Trump’s assertion in an interview with the “PBS NewsHour” on Friday. “We’ll uphold our treaty obligations, including the mutual defense agreement that is NATO,” he said.

NATO has public support

Experts think NATO is more insulated from populist attacks than the EU and free trade deals like NAFTA.

“I don’t think NATO is in the same category,” former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker told CNN.

“It’s different than trade, where a major slice of the U.S. body politic is in the same place as Trump,” he said, noting Clinton and her primary rival Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have both stated their opposition to many trade deals.

According to a Pew 2016 poll, 53% of Americans had a positive few of the alliance while 77% said being a member of NATO is good for the U.S.

The EU is also significantly more unpopular, with a June Pew Poll finding a plurality of Spanish, Greek, French and British citizens holding an unfavorable view of the organization.

Though some politicians in Europe, like France’s right-wing Marine Le Pen, oppose NATO, many populist figures, like the UK’s Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, back it. Farage told CNN after the Brexit vote that the UK would remain a “key pillar of NATO.”

Lesser of the German Marshall Foundation said that NATO is seen as “a valuable insurance” policy against the plethora of threats facing the West: Russia, terrorism and refugees.

NATO’s Eastern European state are mostly paying up

Trump’s threat to not honor America’s NATO commitments to countries under attack was conditioned on whether those nations countries had fulfilled their funding commitment to the alliance.

As it happens, the Eastern European countries mentioned in the interview that prompted his equivocation of support are some of the biggest per capita contributors to NATO.

The nations most concerned about Russian aggression – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – were invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940.

“They feel genuinely threatened,” Volker said.

Immediately following Trump’s comments, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik tweeted out all the ways Estonia is contributing to NATO’s security, including fighting alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan, as well as the fact that Estonia meets the alliance’s recommended level of defense spending, which is 2% of GDP.

Trump’s criticism of NATO isn’t new

Trump is not the first American politician to call on NATO to do more – Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush both implored the European allies to boost defense spending.

“Even before Trump, there was a growing awareness that the current disparity could not endure over the long term,” Lesser said.

NATO defense spending grew in Europe in 2016 for the first time in years.

Volker added that Trump’s comments on NATO are likely only an electoral tactic.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in Washington in April that concerns about the U.S. reducing its commitment to NATO have been around for decades and yet NATO has endured.

He recalled concerns that “the United States was not going to be supportive of Europe, and that was in 1980. So we have been concerned for many years but we are still going strong.”

Could the alliance unravel over Turkey?

Following last week’s failed coup in Turkey, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fired and detained thousands of military officers, as well as judges and teachers, as part of an effort to root our supposed coup sympathizers.

Appearing alongside EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that NATO would be assessing Turkey’s actions as it prosecutes alleged putschists.

Turkey’s presidential guard to be disbanded

“NATO also has a requirement with respect to democracy, and NATO will indeed measure very carefully what is happening,” Kerry said Monday of membership in the alliance. “A lot of people have been arrested and arrested very quickly.”

But Volker and Lesser think it is unlikely that NATO would move to kick out Turkey.

Volker noted NATO has no established way of ejecting members.

During the Cold War, when the military governments of Greece and Portugal were considered to be in violation of democratic principles, NATO restricted their participation in some of the alliance’s bureaucratic structures put never moved to expel them.

Lesser, a former Sate Department official, agreed that the alliance was unlikely to take action against Turkey, citing its critical role in the fight against ISIS, handling of refugees and countering Russian maneuvers in the Black Sea.