Turmoil at the NATO Summit Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Trump

Last week’s brief NATO celebratory summit meeting for the alliance’s seventieth anniversary displayed tumult and dysfunction. Three of NATO’s crucial players proceeded to roil the proceedings. And such disruption is not all bad.

Before the meeting, French President Emmanuel Macron—furious at President Trump’s lack of coordination with NATO allies in the U.S. troop pullback in Syria and other instances—lamented that NATO had suffered “brain death,” a clear jab at the alleged lack of U.S. leadership under Trump, and renewed his call for Europeans to augment their own alternative military capabilities. Unsurprisingly, Trump took personal umbrage at this remark aimed clearly at him, replying that Macron’s comment was “very insulting.” Also, the two NATO allies got into a bilateral trade tussle that threatened to expand Trump’s international trade war to yet another country.

Trump’s “The United States always get screwed” complaint was also again heard in alliance burden-sharing, as the NATO bureaucracy crowed about alliance members contributing an added $130 billion in defense spending since 2016—curiously the year that Trump was elected. The alliance’s effort to mollify Trump comes after previous summits in which he declined to reaffirm NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense commitment and threatened that he might withdraw from the alliance unless other members stepped up their defense spending.

Meanwhile, the third recalcitrant alliance member, Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, held up a classified NATO military plan to defend the Baltic nations until NATO assumes tougher language against U.S.-allied Kurds in Syria, whom the Turks regard as “terrorists.” The Turks also bought an advanced Russian air defense system, which the U.S. claims could compromise the F-35 fighter. As a result, U.S. export of the aircraft to Turkey and Turkish production of parts for the plane both have been frozen.

NATO was originally created to counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but after that ended, the alliance became a fig leaf for U.S. military interventions outside Europe, so they wouldn’t seem unilateral—for example, in Afghanistan. The formidable Soviet tank army in central Europe has long resided in the dustbin of history, but the alliance just moved forward to Russia’s contracted borders while the Russians were weak in the initial years after the Cold War. Despite Trump’s lukewarm rhetoric toward the alliance, U.S. troop deployments in Europe have been rising. 

Although the threat from Russia’s undemocratic leader, Vladimir Putin, has been overhyped in the media, Russia’s military, except for its modernizing nuclear arsenal, is patchy at best in quality and would not, in most cases, be any match for the U.S. military. The exception might be in the Baltics, where Russia would have local superiority in its own back yard and NATO would have long, vulnerable supply lines. In addition, the U.S. Navy would not be happy about operating aircraft carriers in the confined waters of the Baltic Sea. So maybe the Turkish freeze on the NATO plans to defend the Baltic nations is not all bad. However, by foolishly letting the Baltics into NATO, the United States de facto obligated itself to lead an alliance in defense of them, approved plans or not.

President Trump has intimated here and there that it might be time for the U.S. to withdraw from the NATO alliance. French President Macron is either trying to use this U.S. “unreliability” to become the leader of a European substitute for NATO or is trying to shame the United States to reassume its leadership role in the alliance. Macron correctly has implicitly concluded that the Russian menace has been hyped because he said terrorism was the worst threat, which international law enforcement is a better tool against than is a military alliance. However, for once, Trump is right that the United States has not gotten much in political or economic concessions from the Europeans for pledging to defend them all these decades. However, Trump’s solution to bully them into increasing their defense budgets is not the answer.

The answer is a long-overdue U.S. reassessment of what a Cold War-era alliance is now good for. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the preservation of NATO is as important, or more important than during the Cold War. Yet, although Putin invaded Crimea, the rich Europeans, with a combined GDP many times greater than that of Russia, could be the first line of defense against any Russian mischief. The United States could instead be the offshore balancer of last resort, the more traditional pre-Cold War U.S. policy used effectively during World Wars I and II. The main threats from Russia are the potential for a nuclear or cyber attack, neither of which the NATO alliance is well equipped to counter and the latter of which the last two presidential administrations—Trump and Obama—have failed to do much of anything about. 

Trump was originally on the right track, questioning NATO’s long-term relevance, but the resulting outrage from the U.S. security establishment has made him content with merely rattling a cup for a few more coins from his European allies. 

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include War and the Rogue Presidency, Eleven Presidents, The Empire Has No Clothes, Recarving Rushmore, and No War for Oil.
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