Trump’s Blunt Talk Is Just What NATO Needs
And what our president's quarrel with the military alliance really reveals.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
At last week’s NATO meeting in Brussels, Donald Trump took the European members to the woodshed. Using his customary blunt straight-talk abhorred by diplo-sophists, he accused the “delinquent” allies of treating the U.S. like “schmucks” and America like a “piggy bank” by not paying their fair share of NATO’s costs. And he shocked them further by saying they shouldn’t wait till 2024 to reach the goal of spending 2% of GDP on their militaries, but get it done now. Then he literally doubled-down by saying they should be paying 4%.
Our free-riding allies need this straight talk. But more important, everybody needs to recognize that the received foreign policy wisdom about the “rules-based international order” built on transnational institutions is a tottering paradigm well past its sell-by date.
Back at home, Trump’s scolding provoked the same howls that followed his remarks on this subject during the campaign. Forget the hysteria from the Dems. Their over-the-top reactions to Trump’s every syllable are so lunatic and banal that they have become a political dog-bites-man story. But Republican NeverTrumpers need their feet kept to the fire so everybody remembers a pique so incoherent and politically suicidal that they would have preferred a corrupt harpy running our country rather than a president who has delivered a have a booming economy and two originalist Supreme Court Justices.
Listen to this bit of a Weekly Standard editorial about Trump’s NATO dust-up:
Three points seem especially relevant. First, Trump’s rhetoric is foolish and unhelpful. His obsession with NATO spending commitments grows from his bizarre sense that the world’s lone superpower is always and everywhere getting screwed. This victim mentality reflects Trump’s view of himself. The president spends much of his time complaining about the various forces he imagines are out to get him. And he talks about the country in the same way.
Almost 60 years ago the American Psychiatric Association created the Goldwater Rule, after Democrat shrinks during the 1960 presidential election announced that Barry Goldwater was mentally ill. The rule states that “it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.” In 2017 the APA reaffirmed it in the wake of similar nonsense about Donald Trump. It’s a good rule everybody should follow. But it didn’t stop our journalist “editors” from indulging in two-bit pop-psychologizing redolent of the sort of cartoon-Freudianism that Alfred Hitchcock popularized.
Worse yet, in the case of NATO spending, the U.S. is “getting screwed,” as currently only three NATO countries other than the U.S. are meeting the 2% minimum. And this complaining about NATO’s low military spending has been going on for a long time––from Senator Mike Mansfield, who in 1970 wrote a column advocating for the “Europeanization” of NATO in order to reduce the 300,000 American servicemen stationed in Europe and save some of the then $14 billion a year spent on Europe’s defense; to Europhile Barack Obama’s chastisement of NATO cheapskates as “free riders.”
But these many decades of friendly persuasion have failed to get the Europeans to live up to their obligation––not just to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense, but to honor Article 3 of the NATO Treaty requirement to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” The “military pygmies,” as NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson once called Europe’s militaries, are not even close to meeting that requirement. Maybe Trump’s tactless straight-talk is what it takes to concentrate the Europeans’ minds.
But it’s not just the question of raising their spending. After the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO and the U.S. believed that military preparedness was not as important as spending the “peace dividend,” and started slashing defense budgets. Europe’s cuts have been especially deep. According to American Enterprise Institute’s Gary Schmitt, since 1991,
[T]he cut to key European allied forces—France, U.K. and Germany—has been even more striking [than the U.S.’s]. France has reduced its active duty force by more than 50 percent, eliminated more than 1,100 tanks out of a force of 1,350, and cut 600 combat aircraft from a fleet of 950. A similar story can be told about British and German forces, with the latter especially burdened in recent years with whole categories of platforms (tanks, transport planes, and submarines) largely unavailable for use.
With so much ground to make up, even reaching the 2% of GDP target will still leave NATO underfunded. Recent efforts, as Schmitt writes, to develop in Poland and the Baltic states a rapid reaction force would still, according to a Rand report, allow Russia to overrun the Baltic states in 60 hours. In that scenario the U.S. military would yet again be the indispensable power for filling the gap.
Then there’s the shamelessness of some of the world’s richest countries spending barely more than 1% of GDP on their militaries, and so having to rely on an “ally” to subsidize their defense. According to the World Bank, measured by GDP, NATO members include Germany, the world’s fourth richest nation; Great Britain, the ninth; France, the tenth; and Italy the eleventh. But they and other NATO members spend per capita one fourth as much as the U.S. does on defense. Meanwhile Russia, their self-proclaimed most dangerous threat, spends nearly 5.5% out of a GDP of nearly $1.5 trillion, less than half of Germany’s nearly $3.7 trillion.
This scanting of defense spending among alliance members is obvious during NATO operations. NATO itself a few years ago confessed that in military operations, “there is an over-reliance by the Alliance as a whole on the United States for the provision of essential capabilities, including for instance, in regard to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; air-to-air refuelling; ballistic missile defence; and airborne electronic warfare,” not to mention other matériel and combat-ready troops. During the 2011 NATO operation in Libya, for example, of the 246 cruise missiles launched, the U.S. fired 218.
It’s no surprise that many ordinary Americans don’t get why rich countries like Germany, which enjoys a $65 billion annual trade surplus with the U.S. and has a $3.7 trillion GDP, can’t afford more tanks, jet fighters, submarines, and smart bombs. They also don’t get why American taxpayers have to pay for defending such feckless governments who at the same time gouge them with high tariffs. Trump is simply articulating their frustration at the lack of reciprocity among supposed loyal allies who instead act like spoiled dependents.
From a larger perspective, however, the current quarrel between Trump and NATO over military spending is an episode in the slow-motion breakdown of what is usually called the “rules-based international order” responsible for postwar peace and prosperity. The conventional paradigm holds that under American leadership after World War II, transnational institutions like the U.N. and the EU, multilateral treaties like NATO, and regulatory agencies like the World Trade Organization created this “rules-based order” that recalibrated interstate relations on the basis of international cooperation based on shared principles, rather than the parochial interests of sovereign nations. After all, we are told, it was nationalist particularism and the pursuit of zero-sum national interests that caused the spectacular carnage of the 20th century’s two world wars. Ceding national sovereignty to transnational technocrats far above those petty interests would create a more peaceful and prosperous world.
This narrative has always been based on unproven or contestable assumptions, such as the claims that fascism and Nazism were implicit in nationalism per se, or that human beings all desire the same goods, like peace and prosperity, that the West does. More seriously, the very real peace and prosperity of the last half-century was made possible not by the “rules based order,” but by American military power and economic dynamism. The “rules-based order” was the effect of, and enforced by America’s nuclear arsenal, powerful military, and the doctrines of containment and Mutually Assured Destruction, which eventually kicked Soviet communism into the trash-can of history. If you doubt it, imagine the world in 1945 without America’s nuclear arsenal. It’s doubtful there would have been the peace and prosperity we now enjoy, or the triumph of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.
Finally, there is the record of history, in which events have continued to be driven by the conflicting and often mutually exclusive interests, passions, and ideologies of sovereign states. The “rules based order” and its institutions have in practice merely been the instruments of those interests.
Just look at Germany, piously proclaiming its lofty ethics and dedication to the “rules-based order” even as it goes into business with Russia to build the Nord Stream II pipeline for pumping 55 billion square meters of natural gas into Germany. It needs this energy source because it shut down most its own coal-fired and nuclear power plants in order to gratify their “green” cult and save the planet from man-made global warming. That its deal with Russia bypasses Ukraine and leaves it and other Eastern European countries more vulnerable to Russian energy blackmail is conveniently forgotten, or is shrugged off by assuming that NATO, i.e. the U.S., will have everyone’s back.
And Germany has on national interest grounds explicitly rejected Trump’s call for increasing defense spending. Its Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in an interview a few days ago, “We take free, sovereign decisions about our budget, our energy supplies and our trade relationships, on the basis of facts.” That is, on the basis of national, not transnational interests. Leaders in other NATO nations have similarly pushed back against the mandate on similar grounds, or made hollow promises about reaching the 2% goal by 2024, when most will be out of office. Some have made it clear they have no intention of doings so. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte flat-out rejected spending the money, while French president Emmanuel Macron used vague diplo-speak to promise “a credible budget strategy that meets our needs” –– which means France’s “needs,” not NATO’s.
Nor is such a perfuming of self-interest with lofty rhetoric about the “rules-based order” new. Germany’s point-man on the Russian-German collaboration on Nord Stream II is ex-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. In 2002 he was locked in a tough reelection campaign, so he exploited Germany’s pacifism and reflexive anti-Americanism and successfully lobbied the U.N. Security Council non-permanent members to veto a resolution to approve President Bush’s proposal for a military campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Germany’s ambassador to the U.N. also joined the effort. As a result, Germany along with other NATO nations prevented the U.N. from passing a resolution that would have put teeth into the 17 previous toothless U.N. resolutions condemning Saddam Hussein. These European champions of “rule-based order” put their national interests ahead of strengthening that order’s most important institution.
Nor should we be surprised. For the fact is, sovereign nations pursue their national interests, and the leaders of those nations pursue their own as well. As George Washington said, “It is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind that no nation can be trusted farther than it is bounded by its interests.” Multilateral treaties and agreements, international covenants, and transnational institutions––despite the high-blown globalist rhetoric of their signing ceremonies–– exist insofar as they are perceived to advance a nation’s interests, not because they fulfill some set of universal principles and values guiding the world inevitably towards utopia.
The real significance of Trump’s quarrel with NATO is how it reveals the growing weakness of the international order, which has become a haven for thuggish dictators, duplicitous allies, and transnational political and business elites. America’s interests, America’s security, America’s political order, and America’s laws that give us freedom and rights, should be the foundation of our policies and actions in the world, not the “vague internationalism,” as Churchill called it, and its “promise of impossible utopias.” In a fallen world of flawed human beings, America’s power––checked and balanced and accountable to American citizens––has been the last best hope.