When Donald Trump says the point of his administration is to put America first, many Americans see nothing wrong with it. Why shouldn’t the president of the United States put the interests of his fellow citizens over and above those of foreigners? In theory, it makes perfect sense, even if the past use of that phrase — it was the battle cry of pre–World War II anti-Semitic isolationists who opposed U.S. involvement in the war against Hitler — makes those of us with a sense of history uneasy.
But Trump’s “America First” statements are not simply a matter of asserting that the new administration will judge issues solely by the criteria of whether they advance U.S. interests. The president aims to change the nature of the conversation about Washington’s commitment to Europe, and the costs of this change are starting to become clear. The resulting confusion may be infinitely more dangerous for Americans than those cheering his rhetoric have realized.
During the campaign, Trump suggested that NATO in its current form was becoming obsolete. He complained that NATO allies were not paying their fair share to provide for mutual defense, and he declined to state explicitly that the U.S. would defend Eastern European nations if they were invaded by Russia. In the last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been trying to reassure America’s European allies that their fears about these comments are overblown. Tillerson would like Europeans to learn the lesson about Trump that American journalists have only belatedly absorbed: Take the new president seriously but not literally.
But the Europeans aren’t sounding reassured. Some of their leaders are publicly questioning what it would mean to live in a world in which they could no longer rely on the United States as a reliable security partner. The most graphic expression of their disquiet is the debate about whether the European Union should seek to create its own nuclear-deterrent force. The idea is a long way from being put into effect, but the mere fact that Jaroslaw Kaczynski (the head of Poland’s ruling party) and Roderick Kiesewetter (foreign-policy spokesman for German chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union) are openly advocating such a notion ought to be a wake-up call for Trump and anyone else who thinks that Trump’s rhetoric about NATO isn’t being noticed.
An EU nuclear deterrent would not mean an expansion of the world’s club of nuclear powers. Rather, according to those floating the idea (and assuming after Brexit that Britain would choose not to participate in an EU defense scheme), it would place France’s nuclear force under a joint European command. With funding from Germany, the French weapons would be placed in other European countries to create a nuclear tripwire that could deter potential aggressors. It’s possible that this concept would defend Europe against missile attacks from a foe such as Iran — once the deal Iran struck with President Obama expires and the mullahs move inevitably toward achieving their nuclear ambitions. But the only aggressor that Europeans now have in mind when they speak in this manner is Russia. And the only reason they are thinking along these lines is that President Trump appears to tilt toward Moscow, in his rhetoric if not his actions, and he has voiced ambivalence about NATO.
This isn’t the first time our European allies have expressed fear about what happens when the United States can no longer be relied upon to back them up against the threat of Russian blackmail. Last fall, the New York Times reported that the government of Estonia was preparing its people for the possibility of a Russian invasion by training them for partisan warfare. Along with what is left of Ukraine, the Baltic states are the next likely targets of Vladimir Putin: In his grand project of reassembling the Soviet empire, the nations that gained their independence after the fall of the Berlin Wall would once again become puppet states.
But as the talk about an EU nuclear force grows louder, it’s not just the Estonians who think that, with Trump in the White House, they are going to be left on their own to deal with the Russians.
For many in Trump’s fan base, and, to be fair, a lot of other Americans who can’t find Estonia on a map and don’t care much about the future of democracy in Eastern Europe or anywhere else outside of the United States, this prospect is not a big deal. Others, such as Trump adviser Steve Bannon, might actually sympathize with European nationalist parties that see Russia as a role model rather than a threat. In their eyes, perhaps there’s no need for the U.S. to maintain its NATO commitments.
Calls for letting the Europeans defend themselves are a natural extension of Trump’s misleading chatter about NATO — he has suggested that we’ll fulfill our obligations only if every European nation, including the helpless Baltics, pays its bill to Uncle Sam. But people are dead wrong if they think that a revived Russian empire or the collapse of the democratic experiment in Eastern Europe won’t affect U.S. security.
A Europe that thinks it is being abandoned or bargained away as part of some unrealistic hope for a Trump–Putin détente would have to fend for itself.
NATO committed American power to defend the West against a Soviet effort to subjugate Europe. That pact provided generations of security that allowed democracy and economic freedom to thrive, as the brutal Soviet totalitarianism met its end. But a Europe that thinks it is being abandoned or bargained away as part of some unrealistic hope for a Trump–Putin détente would have to fend for itself. At that point, conflict with Russia would become not only more likely but perhaps inevitable, with incalculable consequences for the future of democratic governments and the global economy.
Trump and Bannon might think that unleashing a little chaos into the Washington bureaucracy will effectively chip away at the corrupt administrative state they despise. Perhaps they are right about that, but unleashing chaos in Europe could undo all that the U.S. achieved in its victories against the Nazis and the Communists. If they are prepared to let that happen, then “America First” becomes more than a slogan with an unfortunate history. It could become a formula for future conflict that would have a devastating impact on the security and the economy of the United States.