Commentary Magazine

The Great Republican Forgetting

AP Photo/Khue Bui

Pro-Trump constituents in the press have a peculiar preoccupation with the president’s conservative critics. Specifically, they’re concerned with the amount of credit Donald Trump receives for his achievements, which presumes those achievements are self-evident. Objective accomplishments—for example, how the Republican Party under Donald Trump has methodically nominated and confirmed originalist judges to federal courts—demand no hectoring from the credit police. Principled conservatives are as happy to heap praise upon Trump for his stewardship of the courts as are #MAGA brigades. It’s only the president’s more dubious feats that raise the hackles of Trump’s enforcers, and for a good reason; they’re not accomplishments at all.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board exemplified the genre on Monday when its members took aim at the “pearl-clutchers among foreign-policy worthies” who, they alleged, stubbornly refuse to “admit” how Donald Trump’s hectoring of America’s allies has yielded tangible and positive results. The Journal uncorked its contempt for students of foreign affairs for failing to say that raising defense budgets among America’s European allies is a product of Trump’s antagonism. This elides the possibility that students of foreign affairs know that they are not. In fact, making this flimsy assertion requires a substantial commitment to forgetting facts that Republicans used to know almost intuitively. Among them that talk is cheap and nations are moved to action not by badgering presidents or institutional utopianism but hard-power realities. And today’s hard-power realities aren’t just unworthy of praise; they’re deeply disturbing.

The Journal editorial noted over half of NATO’s 29 members will soon meet the arbitrary threshold of spending the equivalent of 2 percent of national GDP on defense by 2024, “compared to four or five in a typical year before 2014.” It is, however, important to make note of precisely what nations met their commitments in 2014:  the United States, Great Britain, and Greece. In other words, nations with significant deployments abroad or nations directly threatened by an aggressive neighbor. In 2015, that list expanded to include Estonia and Poland—two countries that were moved to action by the invasion and annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory by neighboring Russia. This year, the list will grow still more to include Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. Non-NATO allies like Sweden and neutral parties like Finland are similarly increasing their defense budgets in the second half of this decade. See the pattern forming yet?

It isn’t just the threats metastasizing in the region but politics in America that have compelled prudent Europeans to look to their own affairs. Two consecutive American presidential administrations have now made their preference for retrenchment clear. Barack Obama spent six of his eight years attempting to “pivot to Asia” and spent most of his tenure withdrawing American soldiers and the last armored divisions from European soil until—you guessed it—hard power realities forced him to abandon his vision.

Donald Trump has continued his predecessor’s habit of antagonizing American allies through costly and needless hostilities over trade relations, and he has been just as clear about his desire to see forward deployments scaled back. “NATO benefits Europe far more than it does the U.S.,” Trump wrote this week. It’s hard to think of a presidential pronouncement burdened with more historical and strategic ignorance. NATO and institutions like the International Monetary Fund are American constructions that enforce an American-led global order. These are long-lived institutions by historical standards, and they’ve managed to stave off great power conflict of the sort that typified the early 20th century.

The prospect of European rearmament serves American political sensibilities but not America’s strategic interests. Conflicts abroad have a gravitational pull on the world’s only superpower and allowing them to flourish inevitably sets the stage for American involvement. There is no coalition of European allies that can allow the U.S. to outsource its role as lone superpower. That was a lesson Barack Obama learned too late. Those who allow Donald Trump to harbor the delusion that American security is advanced by weakening its allies’ reliance on it as the guarantor of geopolitical stability are giving the president license to make Obama’s mistake.

American lawmakers from both parties have long sought to inculcate in their European counterparts a sense of ownership in their own security. If that sense of obligation has finally arrived, it is due to circumstances that no Republican with a healthy appreciation for America’s global mission could possibly welcome. Republicans used to know that hard power was the ultimate arbiter of geopolitical events and of nations. They used to know that talk—be it of the tough or amicable variety—was worth exactly what you paid for it. They used to know that barrier-free trade produced peace and that rewarding criminal despots for making illusory commitments was a reckless misuse of the presidency. Those are undying principles of statecraft that will survive Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s unfortunate that we cannot say the same of all principles.

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