At almost the exact same time on Wednesday evening that Mike Pence declared to Republican voters that Donald Trump will “stand with our allies,” the New York Times published a recent interview with the GOP nominee in which he indicated that, as president, he would not necessarily abide by America’s treaty obligations should a member of NATO come under attack. If alarm bells are ringing in Europe today, there is good reason.
In 2012, the Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union, citing its contributions to “the advancement of peace . . . in Europe.” That award could more fittingly have gone to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which, since its formation in 1949, has been the chief deterrent of foreign adventurism into Europe, first staying the hand of the Soviet Union, and now forefending the westward ambitions of Vladimir Putin.
NATO is, of course, predicated largely upon the sustained military might of the United States, which is not inexpensive, and Trump is correct that most NATO member states do not meet their financial obligations (to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense). Getting our allies to fulfill the terms of their obligations is a worthy goal, especially when America’s coffers are already under enormous pressure.
But achieving that goal is a task for careful behind-the-scenes diplomacy, not for public threats advertised in the New York Times. NATO is designed to deter, and deterrence works only if the threat of military action is believable. Eight years of Barack Obama have weakened America’s defense capacities abroad, but the president has at least stood by NATO. By contrast, Trump is telegraphing to America’s enemies and allies that NATO, under a Trump administration, might well be toothless. To someone like Vladimir Putin, who has been testing NATO’s resolve with his exploits in Crimea and Ukraine, this could be a dangerous enticement to further adventurism. Recall that in April, Russian jets came within 30 feet of a U.S. Navy destroyer during a fly-by in the Baltic Sea. (Trump’s comments are made all the more alarming by the admiration he has expressed for the current regime in Moscow, going so far as to excuse Putin’s murder of journalists and political dissidents. Last week, the Trump campaign forced the RNC Platform Committee to strike language that called for arming Ukraine against invading Russian forces.)
Donald Trump does not seem to understand that NATO is not a favor we are doing for European pals. A peaceful Europe and a constrained Russia are in America’s interests. As the last century showed, the U.S. tends to be drawn into Europe’s conflagrations; the best solution is to stop them catching alight in the first place. The primarily American military umbrella that has kept Europe more or less calm since the end of World War II has saved, and continues to save, not just European lives, but American ones.
The same is true of our other global commitments — for example, on the Korean Peninsula, where the presence of American military resources has checked the erratic North Korean regime. But Trump suggested his willingness to renegotiate, and perhaps even abandon, these arrangements, too.
It is one thing to express concern about the exploitation of America’s largesse; it is another to throw out half-baked thoughts with no appreciation for the weightiness of the interests at stake. So far Trump has given every indication that his approach to our interests abroad would be extraordinarily reckless. If his predilections were actually acted upon, it would make for a more, not less, dangerous world.