Why Trump's Snub of NATO Matters
tags: NATO,Donald Trump
Mark S. Byrnes is professor and chair of the Department of History at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC
Donald Trump went to a NATO meeting last week and never explicitly stated his commitment to Article 5, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
Why is this such a big deal? Because he’s undermining U.S. national interests.
I often have the chance to teach about the creation of NATO, in four different courses I teach (Western Civilization since 1815, U.S. History since 1865, American Diplomatic History, and U.S. since 1945). Whenever I do, I make a point of stressing what an incredible and important departure it was in American foreign policy.
When I tell students that the U.S. created and joined the North Atlantic alliance in 1949, I always ask them when the U.S. last had entered a formal alliance. They often guess World War II, and then World War I. Students understandably assume that since the U.S. fought along side other nations in both the First and Second World Wars, and we casually refer to America’s “allies” in those wars, that there were treaties of alliance. But there were none—in each case, the U.S. quite deliberately maintained its formal separation from those it called its “allies.”
NATO was the first formal alliance for the U.S. in nearly 150 years. In 1800, the Adams administration negotiated an end to the French alliance of 1778 that had helped the Americans win the Revolutionary War, and the U.S. had not agreed to a single treaty of alliance since. When revolutionary France went to war with Britain (America’s largest trading partner) in the 1790s, the alliance seriously complicated not only American foreign policy, but American domestic politics as well, and soured Americans on the idea of any binding foreign commitments.
After its war with Britain ended in 1815, the U.S. assiduously avoided involvement in European political affairs. Its response to conflicts in Europe was essentially “none of our business.” When both World Wars broke out, the American response was to declare its neutrality. In 1949, that changed.
American membership in NATO represented a fundamental shift in American foreign policy. For nearly a century and a half, Americans insisted on complete freedom of action in foreign policy. No binding commitments would threaten to drag the U.S. into a foreign war. That determination was the single largest factor in the Senate’s rejection of Woodrow Wilson’s vision for the League of Nations after World War I. With NATO, the U.S. reversed course and said that it would immediately go to war if one if its allies were attacked. Why such a dramatic change?
The lesson of the two World Wars, in the minds of American foreign policy makers, was that the U.S. could not avoid involvement in a major European war. The only way to stay out of such a war, they decided, was to make sure that one never broke out again. The only way to do that was deterrence through a binding collective security agreement. Send the message to a potential aggressor (the Soviet Union at the time) that American neutrality was unequivocally a thing of the past: if World War III broke out, the (nuclear armed) U.S. would be in it on Day One. That certainty would deter any potential aggression and prevent another war.
That certainty is what Donald Trump recklessly undermined last week. NATO’s effectiveness depends on certainty, and he created uncertainty. During the campaign, Trump suggested that America's commitment to honoring Article 5 would become conditional. When asked if the U.S. under a Trump administration would defend the Baltic states if attacked by Russia, he said “If they fill their obligations to us.” That one small word, “if,” has the potential to undermine the entire alliance. The whole point of NATO was to take the “if” out of the calculation.
Last week, Trump had an opportunity as president to repair the damage he had done as a candidate, and he passed on it. Administration officials assured reporters beforehand that Trump would “publicly endorse NATO’s mutual defense commitment.” But he did no such thing. He briefly mentioned it in the context of NATO coming to America’s aid after 9/11, but never stated his commitment to reciprocate. Instead, he harped once again on the need for NATO nations to pay “their fair share.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with reminding members that they have agreed to spend 2% of GDP on defense. Trump, by refusing to state his commitment to Article 5 while making that demand, however, is turning NATO into just another “deal.” He has said in the past that he thinks the U.S. is being “taken advantage of” in NATO. In his transactional framing of the alliance, European members are paying for American protection, and to get them to pay up, he is implicitly threatening to refuse to honor America’s commitment. This is his simple-minded idea of what constitutes “tough” leadership.
As with so many other aspects of his disastrous presidency, Trump here is misapplying his business approach to realms where it is not only not applicable but downright destructive. NATO is not a “deal.” It is not a protection racket. The American creation of NATO was meant to serve American interests. It has done so for nearly 70 years. Undermining the alliance with his childish and churlish attitude is self-defeating. It undeniably damages American interests. The only open question is whether Trump is doing so out of ignorance and foolishness, or for far more disturbing and sinister reasons.
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