Donald Trump loves to take credit for sparking debate. Be it about subjects like terrorism, or immigration, or even trade policy, the celebrity candidate fancies himself the nation’s conversation-starter-in-chief. Of course, only the terminally credulous believe his boasts. Trump is a newcomer to policy debates, and it shows. The real estate heir does, however, deserve credit for raising at least one issue that wasn’t at the forefront of anyone’s mind. That issue, whether the United States should essentially allow the NATO alliance to wither and decline, is being lent credence. At the risk of bestowing further legitimacy upon this bizarre contention, it is one that nevertheless must be confronted if only because it is illustrative of the reality television host’s instincts and their deadly serious consequences.
An equitable distribution of responsibilities among members of the Atlantic Alliance and their associated costs can be a source of consternation for Americans who bear the majority of both. What’s more, the efficacy of NATO’s combined fighting forces is disturbingly debatable. But the necessity of the alliance’s very existence has not been the subject of much debate since immediately after the Warsaw Pact dissolved and the Soviet Union imploded. That is, until this week when Donald Trump embarked on an epic ramble before the assembled members of the Washington Post editorial board. There, when asked if he believed NATO should continue to expand, Trump engaged in his familiar brand of contradictory, extemporaneous beat poetry. Ultimately, he settled on the determination that the cost/benefit analysis of America’s association with NATO no longer made sense.
“Look, I see NATO as a good thing to have,” Trump began pleasantly. “I look at the Ukraine situation, and I say, so Ukraine is a country that affects us far less than it affects other countries in NATO, and yet we are doing all of the lifting, they’re not doing anything. And I say, why is it that Germany is not dealing with NATO on Ukraine?”
That seems reasonable on its face. The notion that America’s Western European partners do not contribute as they should to the collective defense is a frustration. Figures ranging from Republican members of Congress to President Barack Obama, and many in between, have long denounced European “free riders” who fail to dedicate the equivalent of at least 2 percent GDP to defense spending. If Trump had stopped there, we might have had a half-cogent response to a matter of great urgency – peace on the continent of Europe – and this would have been an informative and laudable exercise. But Trump did not stop there.
“I think the concept of NATO is good, but I do think the United States has to have some help. We are not helped,” Trump added. “I’ll give you a better example than that. I mean, we pay billions – hundreds of billions of dollars to supporting other countries that are in theory wealthier than we are.”
“NATO was set up at a different time,” he later asserted. NATO was set up when we were a richer country. We’re not a rich country… NATO is costing us a fortune and yes, we’re protecting Europe, but we’re spending a lot of money. Number one, I think the distribution of costs has to be changed. I think NATO as a concept is good, but it is not as good as it was when it first evolved.”
Trump cautioned that, while he would not recommend pulling the United States out of NATO per se, he would seriously review America’s financial commitment to the alliance – an alliance from which he does not think the nation benefits much. In fact, the majority of America’s foreign commitments and the peace and stability they yield are of little interest to Trump. “I don’t think so,” Trump said, when asked if forward basing yielded any material benefits. “I think that we are not in the position that we used to be. I think we were a very powerful, very wealthy country. And we’re a poor country now.”
Of course, those who have cast themselves in the unenviable role of Trump clarifiers, most of whom spend their days cleaning up the candidate’s misstatements and excesses only for him to change his position within hours, rushed to his aid. There are a variety of misconceptions about the United States, American grand strategy, and the role of the NATO alliance at play in these comments. Each deserves some attention.
The first is the central conceit of the Trump campaign and his appeal to millions: licensed self-pity. The notion that the United States is a “poor” country – poorer than, say, Poland or China – is simply laughable. It is the same impulse that is indulged by coddled college students or frustrated white nationalists to validate their anxiety; it is a victimization narrative that justifies paranoia, irascibility, and the paralysis that accompanies crippling self-doubt.
America is not a poor nation, by any stretch. “American households entered 2016 with a net worth of nearly $87 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve,” James Pethokoukis observed. “To put that ginormous number in some context, China’s private wealth has been estimated at $23 trillion. Even if you factor in America’s debt-laden public sector and China’s large state-owned companies, the U.S. still has a $45 trillion wealth edge.”
What about the Trump wing’s perfectly legitimate frustration, albeit imprecisely expressed, with the inequitable distribution of the cost burden associated with NATO’s collective defense. First, anyone with a fleeting sense of history should be suspicious of the assertion that American interests would be best served if we left security on the European continent to a united Germany and an aggressive, expansionist Russia. Second, NATO’s budget – which is dedicated to military, civil, and counterterrorism programs – is distinct from its members’ contributions to defense. While America contributes roughly 22 percent of NATO’s modest (by defense standards) operating budget, its commitment is less than one-tenth of one percent of America’s defense budget in 2015. The U.S. spends roughly 3.5 percent of GDP on defense, which is by far the largest contribution to defense of any NATO member state. But, because its GDP is dramatically larger than any other individual member, it accounts for nearly 75 percent of all military spending in the alliance.
Finally, there is a misapprehension about the alliance’s role. As our Max Boot noted today, counterinsurgency and counterterrorism are distinct from conventional war-fighting. The United States invoked NATO’s Article V provision triggering the alliance’s mutual defense provisions following 9/11, but the bulk of the fighting against the Taliban government was conducted by local proxies allied with the West. Similarly, the conflicts being waged against Islamist terror groups are unconventional by nature. There will be no great set piece battles in the war on ISIS, but that does not mean that there will never again be set piece battles. Within the last decade, Russia has invaded two sovereign countries within the former Soviet space. On both occasions, Moscow carved off territory from these targets and, in Ukraine’s case, annexed it into Russia proper. This autumn, an emboldened Russia mounted an expeditionary campaign into the Middle East. There, a narrow mission objective – propping up a puppet regime – was achieved with minimal cost. Such success makes further adventurism more likely. There is only one bulwark in place to prevent Russia from making a similar attempt on territory in the Baltics or even in the territory that surrounds the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
NATO is also a mechanism for imposing restraint on its members. In 2012, a Turkish fighter jet was shot down over Syria as that country’s still nascent civil war spiraled out of control. Ankara invoked the treaty’s symbolic Article 4 provision compelling member states to consult on a threat to one of its members, and many speculated that it might soon trigger Article V, compelling all 28 NATO members to come to Turkey’s aid in Syria. That threat was mysteriously withdrawn. Similarly, when Turkey destroyed a Russian warplane in November, it was the backstop of the Atlantic Alliance that imposed caution and restraint on both parties, allowing cooler heads to prevail.
Already, nations like Poland and Estonia are skeptical that Washington, Berlin, London, and Paris would truly come to their defenses if they were threatened by Moscow. Rumblings across the Atlantic that the alliance as it is presently constructed is a money pit will only render those suspicions more acute. That kind of uncertainty makes the prospect of testing NATO’s commitment to mutual self-defense a more inviting one for Vladimir Putin. It might only take the serious threat of war on the alliance’s periphery over nations that men like Donald Trump don’t believe “affect us” for the alliance to dissolve, for spheres of influence to arise again, and for multi-polarity and unpredictability to prevail. That would be a return to the bad old days, but such a turn for the worse may be inevitable. How can you prevent the repeat of history if you haven’t bothered to study it?