, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Marc Fisher’s column in today’s Washington Post on the approach taken to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by President Trump and his successors is one of the more schizoid articles on American foreign policy that I’ve ever seen.

On the one hand, Fisher makes the absolutely crucial – and typically overlooked – point that since its founding (back in 1949), the United States has seen the alliance as a means not simply to contain the old Soviet Union (and now the Russian follow-on state). It’s also been seen as a means to contain Germany – specifically, (in Fischer’s words) to “enmesh Germany so thoroughly in Western alliances that it never again became a dominant, destabilizing force.” And P.S. – that’s also why Washington was so enthusiastic about Germany joining the European Union (originally through various predecessor organizations).

Even better, the author discusses how this strategy has had historic benefits (helping build a Western Europe that was free and peaceful for decades) and costs (discouraging Germans, especially after unification, from grappling seriously with the challenge of becoming a “normal” country, complete with robust defense capabilities, without reverting back to dangerous militarism).

But despite the valuable history lesson, Fisher’s article at least flirts with Trump Derangement Syndrome in two important ways. First, he fails to distinguish between German ambivalence about more assertive foreign and defense policies, and current German policies like signing energy supply contracts bound to send billions worth of euros in revenue to a Russian government that Berlin professes to view as a threat to European security and the broader “global liberal order.”

Even seven decades after the end of World War II, the former remains understandable, at least to some extent. There can be no excuse for the latter, and President Trump has been absolutely right to call Germany on the carpet in this respect.

Second, Fisher calls the Trump-ian approach to NATO, and to defense burden-sharing issues a major and troubling departure from longstanding U.S. policy because it’s been (or seemed to be) uniquely ignorant of the Germany issue. Yet he belittles Mr. Trump’s claim to be a long overdue disrupter of hidebound American NATO strategies by noting that, in 1992, former President George H.W. Bush’s administration “bluntly warned” Germany that “the United States would pull its troops out of Europe if the Germans and other Europeans didn’t cough up the money and manpower to take more responsibility for their own defense.”

Unless Bush 41 was simply blowing smoke, I’m hard pressed to see the difference between this position and President Trump’s hard (and harsh) line. Fischer could have made this case – which is entirely conceivable given the long history of similar, indeed transparently hollow, threats from Mr. Trump’s globalist predecessors. But he didn’t. Moreover, the President’s rhetoric hasn’t (yet) gone as far as Bush 41.

The way I see it, major changes in America’s approach to NATO (and to its alliances in East Asia) are urgently needed, and Mr. Trump hasn’t gone nearly far enough down this road. It’s also clear that, in some important respects, the Trump-ian approach of loud bark and modest bite has given his administration the worst of all possible worlds – widely accused by the U.S. and many foreign chattering classes of ostrich-like isolationism, yet failing (to date) to secure for the United States any of the benefits of a genuine America First global strategy. Worse, as I’ve just argued, Mr. Trump actually seems determined to increase some of the threats the United States faces from continuing the alliance status quo.

So I’m not knocking Fisher for criticizing the President’s NATO policy. What a shame, though, that he didn’t limit himself to spotlighting the Germany issue, and proceeded to fall into the kind of Trump-induced incoherence that has rightly cost the mainstream media so much credibility.