Politics & Policy

The Donald’s Dangerous Dismissal of NATO Allies

(David Becker/Reuters)
His irresponsible stance on NATO puts global security at risk.

Last week’s Republican Nation Convention in Cleveland was supposed to unify the party and signal to general-election voters that Donald Trump was capable of handling the duties of the presidency. However, his remarks in a wide-ranging interview with the New York Times last week undermined those efforts and added to the concerns many national security-minded voters have with his candidacy.

For the past 70 years, U.S. presidents have recognized that defending our national interests requires using America’s overwhelming economic and military power to support like-minded allies. This vision of a U.S.-led global-security order, perhaps best embodied by the NATO alliance, has not only prevented major state conflict since World War II, but has also supported a global system of trade that has led to unparalleled prosperity for all. In his interview with the Times, however, Trump dismissed the value of America’s global leadership: “We are not the same country and the world is not the same world . . . . We don’t have the luxury of doing what we used to do; we don’t have the luxury, and it is a luxury.” Trump should recognize that America’s international system of alliances is not a “luxury,” it is the prerequisite of peace.

Trump’s remarks became even more alarming when he said that, as president, he would condition defending our NATO allies on whether they have met the organization’s target of devoting 2 percent of GDP to defense spending. David Sanger of the Times asked, “Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligation?” In response, Trump replied “Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”

Trump’s threat was crouched in a familiar refrain in which he described America’s global alliances as if they were mafia protection rackets. He warned that if the United States is not “properly reimbursed” by our allies, he would gladly tell them, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.” He emphasized that he would “always be prepared to walk” away from our commitments, and that he could always redeploy our military from a fortress America that is bereft of its security partners.

Trump’s comments betray his deep ignorance of Russia’s aggression against the West.

Trump’s comments betray his deep ignorance of Russia’s aggression against the West. As retired Air Force General Philip Breedlove, former head of U.S. European Command, notes, “Moscow is determined to reestablish what it considers its rightful sphere of influence, undermine NATO, and reclaim its great-power status.” Furthermore, he says, “the foundation of any strategy in Europe must be the recognition that Russia poses an enduring existential threat to the United States, its allies, and the international order.”

If the United States were to withdraw the remainder of its forces from Europe or refuse to support a NATO member under attack as Trump proposes, then the alliance would likely end because its collective-security guarantee would be revealed to be worthless. Article 5 of the alliance’s founding treaty is clear: An attack against one member shall be regarded as an attack against all of them. Donald Trump should heed what British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said Thursday: “Article 5 is an absolute commitment. It doesn’t come with conditions or caveats.”

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It is even more important to note that the Baltic nations have, in fact, fulfilled their obligations to the United States. Despite their small size and limited military power, these countries were part of the U.S.-led coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq, devoting hundreds of troops to each theater throughout the course of these missions. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania still maintain a presence in Afghanistan today, after the end of the coalition’s combat mission at the end of 2014. Donald Trump should be celebrating the Baltic states’ brave determination to stand with the United States — even when they were under no obligation to do so — instead of flippantly dismissing it.

It is difficult to understate just how dangerous Mr. Trump’s remarks are. The Republican nominee for president of the United States has signaled to Vladimir Putin and other aggressors throughout the world that the United States would not come to the defense of a treaty ally. It was precisely this sort of uncertain signal that encouraged North Korea to invade the South in 1950, and Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait in 1990.

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Trump’s remarks also perpetuate the falsehood that America’s allies are “free riders” on America’s security guarantee when they are, in fact, increasing their defense spending in response to Russia’s aggression. As NATO reported in its communique from this month’s Warsaw Summit, “Collectively, Allies’ defense expenditures have increased in 2016 for the first time since 2009. In just two years, a majority of Allies have halted or reversed declines in defense spending in real terms.”

The larger point to be made here is that NATO is simply not a burden on the United States. Rather, as Retired Marine General Jim Jones and former Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns note in a recent report for the Atlantic Council, NATO is “a force multiplier for U.S. power and influence around the world.” They add, “America’s global network of alliances is one of our greatest strategic assets and advantages over nations such as Russia or China. The contributions of U.S. allies to regional and global security and prosperity mean significant cost savings for the United States.”

#related#It would easy to dismiss this episode as an off-hand remark or a matter of simple ignorance. Unfortunately, however, this is what Donald Trump actually believes. He has made similar statements before in this campaign, and he will continue to do so until Election Day. Indeed, the campaign’s chief policy official doubled down Thursday on both the candidate’s remarks in his interview with the Times as well as the successful effort to strip language from the GOP platform that called for providing lethal military assistance to Ukraine.

Americans should recognize the enormous danger that Donald Trump’s policies pose to global security. Our allies in Europe and Canada are the first places where the United States looks to for help when military action abroad is necessary. Time after time, they have risen to the occasion and given America their vital support when it is necessary to confront aggression and keep the peace. But, by denigrating the contributions that America’s allies have made to our own defense, and stating that the United States would not come to their defense in return, Donald Trump has only emboldened our adversaries, and undermined our own security.


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