In the past month, I have had the privilege of visiting some of America’s closest and most embattled allies in both Europe and Asia. Upon returning home, I have found their freedom threatened not just by their illiberal neighbors but, incredibly, by the presidential nominee of the Republican Party, to which I have belonged my entire adult life.
First I went to the Baltic Republics—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania—three postage-stamp-size countries that since the collapse of the Soviet Union have developed into model free-market democracies. But the freedom of these states (total population 6.2 million) is imperiled by the presence of tens of thousands of Russian troops just across their border, along with hundreds of Russian aircraft, tanks, and missiles. Those forces belong to Vladimir Putin, a rapacious tyrant who has destroyed the last vestiges of democracy in his own country and invaded two neighboring states, Georgia and Ukraine.
The Baltics do what they can for their defense—all of them are either already spending or about to reach the threshold of 2 percent of GDP on defense that NATO requires—but there is only so much they can do. There is no way that on their own they can possibly stop an onslaught by Russia (population 142 million). They experienced Russian occupation from 1940 to 1991, and they know that the only way they can avoid a repeat of that nightmare is with the aid of the United States and their other NATO allies. In return for American help, the Balts have been active contributors to collective defense, sending troops to Afghanistan without caveats and participating in other NATO and non-NATO missions.
A few weeks later, I flew to South Korea, another American ally, whose freedom was safeguarded at the cost of 33,000 American lives—and far more Korean dead. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, which brought with it utter devastation, South Korea has developed into one of the world’s richest and freest societies. It is the 11th largest economy in the world and a vital American trade partner. But it, too, faces the threat of annihilation from across its border, because it is next door to North Korea, a Stalinist state led by a third-generation dictator who is armed with nuclear weapons.
South Korea does plenty for its own defense. Its armed forces, at more than 600,000 strong, are among the largest and most capable on the planet. But it, too, needs American help, principally with air and naval assets and, of course, nuclear deterrence. At Washington’s insistence, Seoul has not pursued its own nuclear program. Instead, it counts on America’s arsenal to deter North Korean aggression. But it also serves as the frontline of American defense, because North Korea is now developing nuclear missiles capable of hitting the West Coast of the United States. The best way to stop such an attack is with missile defenses based in South Korea.
Recently Seoul risked Beijing’s wrath by agreeing to participate in the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system. The decision to deploy THAAD was seen as a gutsy sign of how close the U.S.-South Korea alliance remains. Like NATO, that relationship is one of the pillars of America’s post-1945 security architecture.
Donald Trump doesn’t seem to care about any of that. In a blockbuster interview with the New York Times, which has to be read to be believed, he casually dismisses America’s allies and commitments like other men might throw away a used Kleenex.
Asked by Times reporter David Sanger what he would do if Russia attacked the Baltic Republics, Trump insouciantly replied, “I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do.” He then said his response would depend on whether they have “fulfilled their obligations to us.”
There goes Article V of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty. It says: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them… will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith… such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
That is the very foundation of NATO, the most successful alliance in history. There is no ambiguity in the treaty. It doesn’t say that members will come to each other’s aid if they feel like it. It says they will act if a member is attacked. The only time that Article V has been invoked was after 9/11 when other NATO members rushed to help the United States in Afghanistan and beyond. By casting doubt on whether he would respond to Article V violations, Trump is destroying the foundations of collective security and emboldening Vladimir Putin.
But Trump didn’t stop there. He made clear that it is not only the Baltic states that will be unable to count on American support any longer. David Sanger asked him about the fate of the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea, noting that our presence on the peninsula since 1953 has kept the peace and prevented a resumption of the Korean War (which is still not officially concluded). Trump waved away that argument. He suggested that it might have been better if we hadn’t kept troops in South Korea: “Maybe you would have had a unified Korea. Who knows what would have happened?”
Trump is right, but not quite in the way that he intended. Yes, Korea might have been unified absent the American troop commitment—but unified on Pyongyang’s terms, not Seoul’s. This would have meant the expansion of slave labor camps from North Korea to South Korea. It would have meant the destruction of one of the most vibrant and prosperous societies in the world.
Simply by talking the way he is, even without being elected to any office, Trump is doing serious damage to American credibility and to collective security. Our allies are carefully watching our presidential campaign, and they are—as I can attest, based on my conversations in South Korea and the Baltic Republics—unnerved by what Trump is saying. Even before his latest comments, they were extremely anxious; now they will be apoplectic. Meanwhile our enemies—the likes of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un—have to be smiling, because they imagine a day before long when Trump becomes president, and they will be free to attack their neighbors with impunity.
Even if Trump doesn’t win, his political success will suggest to enemies and allies alike that America is turning isolationist, that we are no longer to be trusted or feared. This is a serious problem for American foreign policy that will turn into a catastrophe if Trump actually wins and implements his isolationist agenda.
He is turning his back on more than 70 years of bipartisan foreign policy which has been predicated on alliances with the NATO states, South Korea, Japan, and other partners. What makes this all the more fantastic is that he is doing this with the support of boosters, such as Newt Gingrich, who not long ago were among the strongest advocates of NATO expansion.
Trump’s comments are a direct threat to the security not just of South Korea or the Baltic Republics or other allies but of the United States itself. If he were somehow to be elected and then go on to implement his ruinous and radical agenda, we would enter a Brave New World of chaos and insecurity. You think the world is bad enough now? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.