Thanks to Donald Trump, signs are appearing of a national debate breaking out over America’s membership in its major security alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Actually, it hasn’t been much a debate so far in the sense of a two-way exchange. The Republican front-runner has called the alliance “obsolete” and has accused its European members of free-riding while the United States foots most of the common defense bill. (He’s made similar points about similar defense arrangements with Japan and South Korea.) The nation’s policy, political, and media establishments – including most of Trump’s presidential rivals – have almost uniformly assailed these claims as ignorant, outrageous, and even dangerous.
Last week, I explained that the free-riding point is perfectly valid – and has been for decades. Trump is also, contrary to his critics, right to worry about the major expenses incurred by the United States to defend countries amply rich enough to defend themselves much more effectively. What’s notable this week about how the evolution of this all-too-one-sided debate is:
>the revealingly lukewarm endorsement given to NATO by the U.S. Defense Department; and
>the equally revealing, though completely incoherent, endorsement provided by the New York Times editorial board
The lukewarm endorsement came from chief Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook. Asked at his daily press briefing yesterday whether NATO had become “obsolete,” Cook responded that the alliance “is far from obsolete.” This is a rave review? To be sure, Cook added that “We think NATO is as relevant as ever right now in the current environment,” which could mean that it’s viewed being every bit as important to U.S. security as during the height of the Cold War. But he also used the formulation “NATO’s as relevant today as it’s been in sometime,” which clearly narrows the time-frame, possibly to include many years during which NATO and European security weren’t exactly keeping American leaders up night and day.
The incoherent endorsement came the day before, in a Times editorial condemning Trump’s “dangerous babble on foreign policy.” The indictment extended across-the-board but featured this passage:
“Mr. Trump also challenged decades of American policy by calling NATO“obsolete. Since the Cold War, the alliance has undergone reforms and remains the primary organization that can deal with military threats. It is central to the stability of Europe, which is vulnerable to terrorist attacks, weak economies and the flood of refugees from the Syrian war. With Russia’s aggressive movements in Ukraine and threats to the Baltics, this is no time to suggest that Washington is rethinking its strongest commitments to its allies. Although Mr. Trump said he doesn’t want to pull America out of NATO, he said it has to be changed so the United States bears less of the cost.”
The closing thought is in many ways the most disingenuous. The Times acknowledged that Trump is calling for an end to U.S. Involvement in NATO, but wants the Europeans to spend more to defend themselves. Leave aside the question of whether this is a reasonable position as such or not. Times writers should have told their readers that this is basically current American policy – as Pentagon spokesman Cook made clear in his briefing. Why does Trump’s agreement represent a kiss of death?
But the substance of the Times argument is also difficult to follow – at best. On the one hand, “the alliance” is called “central to the stability of Europe. Although the Times didn’t make this claim, presumably it considers Europe’s stability central to the security of the United States. But the editorialists then go on to describe the Continent as economically weak, flooded with refugees, and vulnerable to terrorism. Why do they believe that NATO can help on those fronts? And if this is their view, why hasn’t it? Just as important, how does an American commitment to protect militarily a region floundering on so many non-military fronts contribute to U.S. security?
The paper is on stronger grounds when noting Russian threats to Baltic countries that are now members of NATO. Failure to defend treaty allies would surely undermine America’s global credibility, and surely damage its security to some extent. But why is Ukraine the slightest bit relevant to this discussion? It stands outside NATO. Its security has never been viewed as crucial to America’s by U.S. leaders – even during the Cold War. Has it suddenly become crucial now? If so, why?
Nor is the Baltics point beyond criticism. These countries were brought into NATO after the Cold War ended. Like Ukraine, they were actually part of the Soviet Union before it fell apart – with no apparent adverse impact on the United States. Yes, their official relationships with Washington have now changed. But did their admission to NATO reflect any significant change in their value to the United States? Or was it a completely unnecessary gesture that has now committed America to defend countries that remain as un-defendable (at least with non-nuclear forces), due to their location right on Russia’s borders, as they were when Stalin annexed them in the early years of World War II. I lean markedly toward the latter view – meaning that one of the Times’ main justifications nowadays is actually a problem of Washington’s own making.
Someone – I think it was the late novelist and essayist Norman Mailer – once wrote something to the effect that “There is nothing so dangerous as to introduce a new idea in America.” (Crowd sourcing hint!) Nowhere is that more true that in the world of American foreign policy, dominated as it’s been in recent decades by hide-bound careerists who are little more than lavishly credentialed yes men. Donald Trump and his supporters are learning that hard truth now. Here’s hoping they’ll batter the NATO and alliance relations conventional wisdom as powerfully as they have other establishment sacred cows.