Once again, Donald Trump has raised questions about America’s commitment to NATO, this time in an interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson.
Carlson asked a variation of the typical question about American military commitments overseas: Why send our kids to fight in obscure foreign lands?
Membership in NATO obligates the members to defend any other member that’s attacked. So let’s say Montenegro, which joined last year, is attacked. Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?
Trump’s response was troubling and revealing — troubling because he didn’t mount a defense of NATO and revealing because it demonstrated that he may not even understand the nature of the alliance:
I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. . . . They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations you’re in World War III.
First, let’s just be very clear. That’s not how the alliance works. A president should understand the basic tenets of America’s most important defense relationship. This is not hard. Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty states, in relevant part:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
It does not say that an attack by one is an attack by all. It’s a defense treaty. An “aggressive” Montenegro can’t drag the United States into war.
But even if Trump had gotten his facts straight, how should he have responded to Tucker Carlson? Let’s start with two sentences. “Tucker, if the last two centuries of American history teach us anything, it’s that allied military strength keeps the peace. Allied military weakness invites war.” In other words, if you don’t want Americans fighting in foreign lands, you maintain your alliances.
It is a strange paradox of American history that our nation, up through World War II, was extremely reluctant to involve itself in European wars, yet kept finding itself in European wars. We’ve been involved — to some degree — in each of the truly continental conflicts that have engulfed Europe since our nation’s founding.
The War of 1812 (especially from the British perspective) was essentially a sideshow to the Napoleonic Wars, and yet Americans died in a bloody stalemate, and our capital burned.
If the alliance cracks, then Europe takes a giant step back to the great-power politics of the past, which led Americans to fight in unimaginably brutal European wars. If it endures, peace prevails.
Later, we tried to stay out of World War I. Woodrow Wilson ran his 1916 presidential campaign behind the slogans “He kept us out of war” and (ironically) “America first.” Yet by 1917 we were a part of that conflict, too, and by 1918, American troops were pouring into France. The American offensives in the latter part of the war were massive affairs, and we took terrifying casualties. The Meuse–Argonne Offensive, which took place from late September to early November 1918, was one of the largest battles the American military ever fought, and it resulted in over 110,000 men killed or wounded.
The staggering losses of World War I triggered peace movements that swept the globe. Allied powers signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an agreement to essentially “outlaw war.” American isolationism kept the United States out of the initial stages of the Second World War. Yet we were of course drawn in anyway, suffering casualties that ultimately dwarfed our considerable losses in the Great War.
For those keeping score, that’s three continental conflicts, tens of millions of lives lost, and three American wars. By the end of World War II, we knew it was foolish to retreat. Absent NATO, it’s likely we would have already fought a Third World War. Absent NATO, it’s even possible that the world would have faced a nuclear holocaust by now. NATO continues to serve the critically important function of preventing the reemergence of great-power politics that led up to earlier European conflicts.
Those who say that American military entanglements somehow resemble the military alliances that helped trigger the horror of World War I get their facts exactly wrong. Prior to the First World War there was no military hegemon. There was instead a delicate balance of power — no clear dominant force, but enough military confidence on all sides to mislead national thinkers into believing that they had the capacity to deliver decisive military victory.
If NATO remains strong, Vladimir Putin would have to be deranged to believe that he could win a conflict with the western alliance. And Vladimir Putin, whatever his many other contemptible qualities, is not deranged. Moreover, because NATO is a defensive alliance, its military hegemony is not inherently destabilizing. A rational Putin understands that Polish divisions are not about to roll east, backed by the full might of the American military.
Indeed, it’s the vital importance of military hegemony that makes Trump’s other (accurate) complaint about NATO — that member nations need to step up their defense spending — so very valid. It’s harder to maintain deterrence when a key member state is conducting military drills with broomsticks instead of machine guns. But all the power in the world won’t save the alliance if its members lack commitment. A treaty isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on if its parties lack the will to uphold its terms.
To be clear, this is not an argument for reckless expansion of NATO, or any expansion of NATO for that matter. Right now, the existing alliance needs to be stabilized and fortified, and that can’t be accomplished if we compromise even one inch on our existing defense commitments. If the alliance cracks, then Europe takes a giant step back to the great-power politics of the past, which led Americans to fight in unimaginably brutal European wars. If it endures, peace prevails.
So, Tucker, the answer to your question is simple: America pledges to fight for Montenegro and prepares to fight for Montenegro so it will never have to fight for Montenegro. Anything less places our sons at greater risk.