It was not so long ago that the president dismissed NATO as “obsolete.” President Trump’s campaign promise of an “America First” foreign policy spurred some to fear an America turned inward, shunning the post-World War II international order and its concomitant transatlantic commitments.
In a speech on Thursday, however, Trump seemed to lay to rest any notions of a drastic rebalance. Poland will receive Patriot missile-defense systems from the United States, a departure from President Obama’s policy and a move sure to rankle Russian president Vladimir Putin. Arguably as notable as this was how Trump transformed his prior concerns about NATO into a hopeful, yet still cautious, message for uniting Europe in defense of Western civilization:
The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?
Instead of just enumerating common threats like radical Islamist terrorism or even Russian aggression in Ukraine, Trump appealed to the European soul. After painting a portrait of Poland as a longsuffering, but unbreakable, nation, he asked for renewed resolve from the rest of the continent:
We have to remember that our defense is not just a commitment of money, it is a commitment of will. Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means, but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have.
He also asserted that the United States stands with Europe in the quest to preserve a common civilizational heritage:
We must work together to confront forces, whether they come inside or out, from the south or the east, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith, and tradition that make us who we are.
Trump did not abandon his prior insistence that all NATO members must contribute “their full and fair financial obligation” to the alliance, but the tone in which he reiterated this point was different. Rather than pointing fingers, the speech called for a collective effort that would accrue to the benefit of all parties.
Does Trump actually understand the gravity of the message he conveyed? His speech recasts NATO as not only a geopolitical alliance against Russia and various other threats, but the shield of Western civilization. Yet it seems hard to believe that Trump holds any sort of deep, personal appreciation for Western civilization or has any sense of the meaning embedded in its heritage.
It is refreshing to see the president commit to defending the U.S.’s traditional allies against a revanchist Russia and radical jihadists. Moreover, it’s good to hear his (at least superficial) nod to the importance of preserving Western culture. But from where is the president getting this sudden impulse to be the protector of the West? If it is simply being fed to him by policy advisors, then there is less reason to trust he will remain loyal to NATO allies. Moreover, it would reduce his speech to hollow rhetoric.
In the end, Trump may have been entirely genuine in his speech. One certainly hopes he is committed to supporting America’s European allies. Even so, there is still the question of whether or not European nations have the will to renew a robust transatlantic alliance. And even if they are, will they be willing to look to Trump for leadership?
— Jeff Cimmino is an editorial intern at National Review.