The White House put out a statement yesterday assuring our European allies that the U.S. commitment to NATO is “ironclad.”
No, it isn’t.
Trump, whose nickel-and-dime gestalt could only have come from a repeatedly failed casino operator, is a creature in search of petty advantages and small paydays. As such, he suggested yesterday that the United States might forsake its commitment to NATO — our most important military alliance — because he believes that our NATO allies are not carrying their share of the expense. Trump’s mind processes information the way a horse processes oats, and the product is exactly the same.
Call me reckless, but I’d be willing to wager an amount equivalent to Jonah Goldberg’s annual pants allowance that Trump has no idea how NATO actually is funded, which turns out to be the sort of complex question that leaves him baffled and sputtering. (Short version: Common costs are funded by a longstanding proportional-financing agreement based on gross national income, while countries directly bear some other costs, as when military assets are volunteered for NATO use.) NATO has provided an excellent return on our investment.
It is true that the United States spends more in both absolute and proportional terms than do other NATO members, but here the United States is the outlier. It spends a great deal more on national defense than other NATO members do, and more than non-NATO members, and pretty much every country on the face of the Earth. That has nothing to do with NATO; that has to do with political decisions made in Congress and by presidents of both parties going back to Franklin Roosevelt. It may very well be that the United States spends too much on the military — I believe that it does — but that isn’t because some other country spends too little. The myth of the free-riding Europeans, diverting domestic tax dollars from national security to welfare programs, is not supported by the evidence. They don’t have unusually small militaries; we have an unusually large and expensive one.
Even so, military spending is not really what ails the federal fisc. If you bother to actually look at the numbers (radical idea!), you’ll see some interesting things. Back in the Eisenhower era, in the golden year of 1957, we were spending in real GDP terms about three times on the military what we spend today. And, despite what your progressive friends will try to tell you, our taxes were slightly lower, at 17.2 percent of GDP as opposed to 17.7 percent today. Balanced budget? In 1957, with that radically higher level of military spending and slightly lower level of taxation, we ran a surplus.
The answer, of course, is social-welfare spending, largely driven by the major entitlements (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) that Trump has sworn off trying to reform. We aren’t going to reduce our entitlement-driven deficit by getting the Italians to build a few extra ships.
That’s a problem in the long term. But Trump’s NATO buffoonery is a problem right now.
Since 1949, there has never been any serious doubt that the United States would fulfill its obligations to the North Atlantic alliance. That is a big part of why we had a Cold War instead of an all-out (probably nuclear) World War III in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a big part of the reason there is no longer a wall running through Berlin, and why the people who hold Bernie Sanders’s political philosophy were able to murder only 100 million innocent human beings instead of 200 million.Thanks to Trump, the heads of government and defense ministers of the other NATO powers must now consider that the United States will welsh on its obligations the way Donald Trump welshes on his debts. He isn’t the president yet, of course, and he probably won’t be. But the chance isn’t zero, either. If you are, say, Lithuania, and you suspect that the United States will not actually have your back — a suspicion fortified by Trump’s man-crush on Russian strongman Vladimir Putin — what do you do? Maybe you try to get ahead of the curve and go voluntarily into the Russian orbit. Maybe you notice that nobody seriously messes with the psychotic state of North Korea and do what you can to get your hands on a few nuclear weapons.
They don’t know what we are going to do. As a consequence, we don’t know what they are going to do.
And that’s how Trump makes the world a more dangerous place — even before he’s elected.
Over the next few months, you’ll hear some activists whose main interest is national security making the case that Hillary Rodham Clinton is awful but much less of a loose cannon — and a good deal less Dr. Strangelove-y — than is Donald Trump. He isn’t doing anything to prove them wrong. And he probably won’t.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.