Trump’s behavior during his recent trip to Europe gave a double whammy to our reconstituted Cold War consensus. Last week I reflected on his news conference with Putin in Helsinski. Now I write of his behavior at the NATO summit in Brussels.
On display was our president’s rude, erratic and self-contradictory personality. Along with his departures from other prior U.S. commitments, this performance surely convinced the leaders of our European allies not to look to the U.S. for global leadership.
Among the jumble of Trump’s remarks was one that seemed particularly alarming: he accused NATO of being obsolete. He argued that it focuses on defending Europe against Russia instead of combating terrorism. This wasn’t the first time he had said so. As early as April 2, 2016, when he was campaigning in Wisconsin, he said that it would be fine if the alliance broke up if other NATO members refused his demand, as president, to pay their fair share. But on that occasion as well as others, he made the more basic point that NATO was designed to counter the threat of a Soviet invasion of Europe and that threat has passed, whereas the threat of terrorism is real and present.
On April 12, 2017, Trump declared that NATO was no longer obsolete. At a news conference with NATO’s Jens Stoltenberg, he said, “The secretary general and I had a productive discussion about what more NATO can do in the fight against terrorism. I complained about that a long time ago, and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism.” But, of course, what he said then didn’t keep him from reiterating the same charge this July.
NATO is worse than obsolete — it’s a threat to world peace. The possibility of total war with Russia has arisen again thanks to the expansion of NATO to its borders, including its efforts to recruit Georgia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Putin’s re-absorption of the Crimea and his armed meddling in eastern Ukraine in response to these alarming moves are what NATO points to as proof that Russia poses a threat justifying NATO’s behavior. This is self-fulfilling prophecy. There would have been no threat had NATO disbanded when the USSR dissolved, or had it at least honored Western commitments made at that time. As Mikhail Gorbachev said in a 2015 interview with Der Spiegel, the expansion of NATO to the east was “a 180-degree turn drawing us away from the Paris Charter of 1990, which was made together with all European states to finally leave the Cold War in the past.”
It’s possible to discredit Trump by saying that Putin is manipulating him, but that won’t discredit Trump’s criticism of NATO. Nor would the charge that his criticism reflects an “America First” mentality. The U.S. formed NATO in 1949 because it rightly believed that the Soviet Union posed the biggest challenge to its national interests. “America First” required European military partners then.
Sadly, Trump can’t lead us into an era of real security, not just because he’s inept, but also because, like the Cold Warriors, he too sees life as combat. This assumption is expressed by his approach to trade, but even more by his belief that the West is in a life-and-death struggle with “radical Islam.” Until we understand that a world without “the enemy” is the only truly secure world and then work to bring that world into being, we’ll be stuck with both NATO and Donald Trump.
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.