By James Kirchick
Listening to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declare the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “obsolete” and that he would be indifferent to its dissolution, I am reminded of an exchange from director Whit Stillman’s classic 1994 film Barcelona. Set during “the last decade of the Cold War,” it follows the travails of Fred, a freewheeling American naval officer, who visits his uptight cousin Ted, a businessman living in the Catalonian capital. Informed by his kin that there is much “anti-NATO” sentiment in Spain and that he would do best not to wear his Navy whites in public, Fred replies, “They’re against NATO? What are they for, Soviet troops racing through Europe, eating all the croissants?”
Yes, the Cold War is long over and the Soviet Union (which NATO was erected to contain) is thankfully gone. The Iron Curtain has been dismantled and there are no longer hundreds of thousands of American soldiers stationed in Germany to dissuade the Russians from poaching all the French pastries. But to declare NATO – the most powerful and important military alliance in the world – “obsolete” is to reveal a breathtaking ignorance about the state of world order and America’s role in maintaining it.
Had Trump registered his dismissive declaration about NATO 10, or even five years earlier, it would have sounded slightly less ridiculous. In 2006, relations between Russia and the West were stable and on an upward trajectory. Most political leaders in Europe and America believed, (falsely, in retrospect) that Russia was a status quo power with which the West could do business. Even after Russia invaded and occupied its neighbor Georgia in 2008, Western leaders rushed to re-normalize relations with Moscow, dropping the sanctions they had imposed after just a few months. Shortly after coming into office in the following year, President Barack Obama and his first Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, initiated a “reset” policy aimed at improving East-West relations, the centerpiece of which was the New START Treaty that reduced both countries’ nuclear weapons stockpiles.
But since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and initiated a war against Ukraine in 2014, relations between Moscow and the West have sunk to levels not seen since the hottest points of the Cold War. Though Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the alliance’s eastern members are rightly worried about potential Russian territorial revanchism in the region. Last November in this space, I reported on how governments in the Baltic States and Poland are requesting permanent NATO troop presences in their countries as a deterrent against further Russian aggression. Far from obsolete, NATO is needed now more than at any point since the end of the Cold War.
Ah, but Trump replies, NATO “wasn’t designed for terrorism,” and violent Islamic radicalism is the greatest threat America faces. It’s true that NATO was designed with marauding Soviets, not suicidal Islamists, in mind. As a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, Trump talks a lot about how much the 9/11 terrorist attacks personally affected him. Is he aware that the first and only time NATO invoked its mutual defense clause – which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all – was in response to the 9/11 assaults on America? The day after al Qaida terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s governing body, unanimously declared that it would assist the United States in responding militarily. To this day, that declaration commits every NATO member – now nearly 30 countries – to fighting the terrorist elements responsible for murdering 3,000 people in New York, Washington and on United Flight 93. To this day, NATO members fight and die alongside American soldiers in Afghanistan. While it’s true that domestic and foreign intelligence agencies are responsible for much counterterrorism work, the NATO alliance plays an important role cooperating with these agencies in coordinating military strikes on terrorist encampments and disrupting terrorist networks abroad.
What most seems to annoy Trump about NATO is its cost to the American taxpayer. The crux of Trump’s complaint, as is the case with his position on nearly every issue, is that the United States is getting a bad “deal” out of its NATO membership. It’s true that Washington pays more than its fair share of NATO’s overall budget — about 75% — and that the United States is one of only 3 or 4 other members to spend the recommended minimum 2% of GDP on defense. Trump acts as if he’s the first person to point out America’s disproportionate NATO expenditure, when this is a conundrum that has confronted American defense planners since NATO’s founding Washington Treaty was signed 67 years ago this week. On a bipartisan basis, great American statesmen from Harry Truman to Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy and beyond have understood that global leadership often entails thankless and non-remunerative work, the positive effects of which are not always readily apparent. They also understood that the best way to handle disagreement among allies is to work constructively with them, not to whine and threaten to pick up one’s toys and go home. The latter is the behavior not of a leader but a petulant child.
James Kirchick is an American journalist, a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative and writes for The Daily Beast, Tablet Magazine and VOA