6+1 Questions

4 November 2021, 1306 EDT

Name of the article and its coordinates

Leonard Schuette (2021) “Why NATO survived Trump: the neglected role of Secretary-General Stoltenberg,” International Affairs 97(6): 1863–1881 (open access).

What is the argument?

NATO would not have survived the Trump Presidency without the leadership of Secretary-General Stoltenberg.

Not many know that Trump was on the verge of publicly announcing U.S. withdrawal from the alliance at the 2018 summit. Congress would have prevented a formal end to U.S. membership, but Trump’s announcement itself would have caused irreparable damage. Why then did Trump change his position on NATO in 2019? And why was NATO, at least in military terms, in better state when Trump left office than when he began his term?

Stoltenberg played an instrumental role in bringing Trump around. He managed the critical 2018 summit to make sure that Trump walked away with a victory. Stoltenberg placated Trump by siding with him against other member states over the issue of burden-sharing. He gave Trump undue credit for increased European defence spending. Stoltenberg also used subtle bureaucratic means to prevent Trump from undermining NATO’s defence and deterrence posture, which the alliance had reinforced after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Why should we care?

There is a common misperception that NATO is simply a tool of the United States – that NATO itself doesn’t influence international politics. I show that this isn’t true. NATO sometimes actively shapes its fate. NATO actors are already working behind the scenes to ensure that EU strategy autonomy does not undermine NATO. Stoltenberg is also driving efforts to adapt the alliance to the rise of China.

Stoltenberg’s tenure is ending in September of 2022. His connections and status as former head of state, his self-effacing character, and extraordinary diplomatic skills made his leadership successful. NATO should select a successor who shares these traits.

Why will we find it persuasive?

My argument is based on 23 interviews with closely involved senior officials in Washington D.C. and Brussels, some of whom were in the room when key decisions or statements were made. This gave me unparalleled access to the political dynamics surrounding NATO during Trump’s term.

Why did you decide to write it?

I am part of a wider research project that analyses why some international organizations decline (and die) amid the crisis of the liberal order, while others survive. Initial large-n work found that the size of secretariats is a key explanation for organizational resilience. We subsequently decided to zoom in on the role of institutional actors. The case of NATO and Trump was thus an obvious choice with significant academic and political relevance, but I admittedly did not expect to find such a degree of agency.

If you could change anything about the article, what would it be?

While I managed to get interviews with key officials in both the Trump and Stoltenberg camp, I would have liked to interview Jens Stoltenberg. The final version of the article is also fairly empirical. I think there are more theoretical lessons to be drawn too. While more practical, it was also a shame to conduct the interviews virtually rather than in person because of covid.

How much difficulty did you have getting the article published?

The article was rejected twice before finding a great home. I fell into the trap of submitting drafts that just were not ready for the top journals I targeted. But the feedback helped me to sharpen the argument and the editorial process at International Affairs was very efficient and helpful.