Why Trump Makes Sense Regarding NATO

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was conceived as a mutual defense pact against possible Soviet aggression in Europe following WWII, and the U.S., under President Harry Truman’s initiative, became one of the original twelve members in 1949. The unwillingness of the USSR to withdraw from various Eastern European countries at the end of WWII (which countries were then referred to by Winston Churchill as “behind the Iron Curtain”) gave considerable credibility to the idea that a mutual defense pact was needed in Europe.  Such a pact would only make sense with U.S. membership since our infrastructure and economy had not been devastated by the War, and in fact in many ways had flourished.  

Although the underlying rationale for NATO was known to be anti-communist/anti-USSR, there are no statements to that effect in the actual NATO treaty. Fear and realism coalesced to lead to NATO’s creation.  Josef Stalin was still alive, and his ruthlessness and hatred for capitalism as well as his disregard for human life and paranoia were already well known.  Every reasonable person knows that you can only contain maniacs with force, not with friendliness. Thus, NATO was an important instrument of a policy known as containment (of communism) first enunciated by George F. Kennan after WWII, and subsequently adopted by President Truman.

In 1949, there were 12 members of NATO.  Now there are 29 members, and among them are numbered eleven countries that formerly were controlled by the USSR or part of Yugoslavia.  The Warsaw Pact was formed in 1955 to counter the perceived “threat” of NATO.  Six of the members of the former Warsaw Pact are now members of NATO.  Thus, there has been a complete turnaround and revamping of the polarization that made NATO necessary in the first place. To this writer, this dramatic reconfiguration as well as the collapse of the USSR means that the very need for NATO is in fact a legitimate question.   

Additionally, one of the member states, Turkey, is only partially located in Europe, with the greatest part of its land mass and population in Asia. With Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s shift away from democratic values, the legitimacy of Turkey’s membership in NATO is also dubious.  His power grabs would seem to conflict with the phrase in Article III whereby NATO exists for “strengthening… free institutions.” Although NATO was a bulwark against Soviet expansion, no wars with the Soviets were fought by NATO, and its active combat was limited to two interventions in Bosnia and Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and with the U.S. in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. There was also NATO implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, and there were a few other limited engagements.

However, NATO has had anything but a smooth road.  Few remember that France dropped out of NATO for thirty years when it became a nuclear power. The French did not like the controls the U.S. had over nuclear weaponry in the NATO arsenal. 

Although President Donald Trump’s critics point out that his open and unedited criticisms of NATO are a threat to U.S. commitment to the all-important Article V of the treaty, which commits each member to come directly to the aid of any other member that is attacked, it seems that this concern about undermining Article V is mere carping.  It is carping because treaty obligations do not supersede a country’s sovereign responsibilities to its citizens.  Those responsibilities are financial as well as military.  The existence of a treaty does not amount to an abrogation of the member state’s sovereignty.  Even if a member of NATO were attacked, would our planes just take off and start bombing the attacker?  Would our troops just be loaded automatically into planes and ships to fight and die in the victim state’s land?  Similarly, does our membership imply that we just pay and pay disproportionately forever, irrespective of the other members’ abilities to pay, and the financial stresses we as a country are experiencing?  Such a view is not only untenable, but pathetic.  Treaty obligations cannot be treated as though they are an abrogation of sovereignty.

More important is the presence in Article II of the statement “They will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them."  Trump is asserting that economic collaboration has not been maintained by the member states of NATO insofar as there has been a lack of commitment by most member states to the economic needs of the organization.  This subject has been broached before with NATO, but has not been brought into the public square by past presidents.  Yet, as an Article II issue, it is just as essential to the well-being of NATO as Article V.  Financial support is evidence of commitment.  Thus, Trump is not diluting U.S. commitment, but exposing the lack of commitment to NATO by most of the member states. The U.S. is committing 3.4% of its GDP to support NATO whereas most members have not even reached the goal of 2%, which they said they would reach by 2024.  Is that really the best they can do after 73 years of post-WWII recovery? 

Further, Article I of the NATO treaty states:  "The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international dispute in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered, and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations."  Thus, NATO from its inception was linked to the purposes of the United Nations, which the United States is also funding in a disproportionate way.  In short, global cooperation to reduce aggressions in the world increasingly looks like a manipulation of U.S. finances to buy peace, and to evade individual nation-state responsibility.

Yet, to Lt. Col. (ret.) Ralph Peters, appearing on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN, Trump’s demands make the President an unworthy basket case.   He stated, “We're faced with the real, immediate and perhaps irreparable damage to this greatest of alliances, NATO."  While the President tends toward hyperbole and overdramatizing his positions -- part of his showmanship ability of drawing public attention to his words and projects -- his position regarding funding as evidence of commitment to NATO or the UN is not only reasonable, but consistent with the treaty that binds the signees to their common goals.  U.S. generosity such as the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after WWII has gradually morphed into the U.S. becoming a cash cow for the world community.  This is both unwise and unsustainable, and our President is showing he is determined to shift us away from the unfair burdens which we have embraced.