Analysis

What Trump Gets Right - and Wrong - About NATO

The U.S. has been taken for granted by its NATO partners, but the spirit of magnanimity and global responsibility at its core are foreign to him and his administration

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a news conference after participating in the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium July 12, 2018.
REUTERS/Yves Herman

The stormiest NATO summit in the history of the Western military alliance ended anticlimactically on Thursday, when U.S. President Donald Trump confirmed that his country’s commitment to the organization remained “very strong.” An irrevocable split between NATO’s largest member, which provides most of its hardware and troops, and the other 28 nations has been averted, for now at least.

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Trump claims to have secured guarantees that the other members committed to spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. It isn’t clear whether this is true – the members were committed to doing so by 2024 anyway. But at the press conference before he left Brussels for London, Trump seemed satisfied at having bullied his “partners” into submission.

Trump is right to criticize the fact that while the United States spends 3.6 percent of its GDP on defense, most NATO members – including wealthy nations such as Germany – are not even close to the 2-percent standard. But reducing the differences between the United States and its allies to a question of who foots the bill is a gross misunderstanding of the role NATO has played since its establishment in 1949, as the foundation for shared responsibility of Western security.

NATO was based originally not only on the alliance between the United States and Great Britain that had saved the world from Nazi Germany, but also on the magnanimous spirit of American victory. The Truman administration’s approach to Germany and the rest of Europe in the wake of World War II upended the paradigm of “to the victor the spoils” that had been mankind’s accepted rule throughout history.

Instead of punishing the German people – as the Allies had done after the Great War at Versailles; and as the Soviet Union was busy doing in its area of occupation, where the Red Army was raping, pillaging and carting anything of value back home – the Marshall Plan provided Western Europe with financial aid to the equivalent of $110 billion at today’s rates.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell restated that policy in 2002 when he said, warning of the outcome of the future Iraq War, “You break it, you own it.” But no other empire has approached its military conquests in such a fashion. Only the United States has felt it needs to take responsibility for its vanquished foes.

Similarly, the United States could have drawn back its forces from Europe in 1945, as it had in 1918. Secured by two oceans, it could have protected itself much more cheaply from its own shores, leaving the Continent to its own devices. It chose to remain, its soldiers serving as a bulwark against future aggression.

Nonetheless, Trump is right. The United States has been taken for granted, and deserves both gratitude and more serious investment from its NATO partners. But the spirit of magnanimity and global responsibility at the heart of the North Atlantic Treaty is totally alien to him and his administration. Which is why his behavior, statements and tweets leading up to and during the NATO summit this week were so unsettling. Even if the partners all reach the spending targets soon, the damage he has caused won’t be repaired so quickly.

The European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. There were those who ridiculed the prize being given to the pompous, often ineffectual and frequently corrupt bureaucrats of Brussels. But it was hard to argue with the reasons given by the Norwegian Nobel Committee: that “for over six decades,” the EU had “contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”

However, if the committee members had been entirely honest, the organization that most deserved the prize for preserving peace and democracy in Europe since World War II was NATO. And while all but two of NATO’s members (the United States and Canada) are European, without the Americans it would have lacked not just the firepower but also the leadership necessary to prevent Soviet expansion and a third devastating European war in the 20th century.

The firepower may still be there and, thanks to Trump’s threats, may even be a bit better and evenly funded in the next few years. But American leadership and responsibility are crucial to NATO and won’t return under this president. Trump may not be pulling out of the alliance, but he has caused it major damage.