The Corner

National Security & Defense

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other: Trump, NATO, and the EU

Over the weekend, Trump went after NATO and the EU again:

European leaders grappled with the jolting reality of President-elect Donald Trump’s skepticism of the European Union on Monday, saying they might have to stand without the United States at their side during the Trump presidency.

The possibility of an unprecedented breach in transatlantic relations came after Trump – who embraced anti-E.U. insurgents during his campaign and following his victory — said in weekend remarks that the 28-nation European Union was bound for breakup and that he was indifferent to its fate. He also said NATO’s current configuration was “obsolete” even as he professed commitment to Europe’s defense.

First, in analyzing Trump’s remarks, don’t make the mistake of somehow equating NATO and the EU. NATO is a security arrangement that predates the EU by decades and is far, far more responsible for international peace and security than the failing effort to create a European superstate. Peace in Europe has been preserved through the sheer fact of American military hegemony superimposed over a previously-airtight mutual self-defense pact, not by the economic and political union that’s been forged under NATO’s military umbrella.

Second, Trump is right to call out treaty partners for failing to meet their defense obligations, but he’s wrong to call NATO “obsolete” for not “taking care of terror.” In fact, the alliance invoked Article 5 — which holds that an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack against all — on September 12, 2001. Troops from NATO countries have been fighting and dying in Afghanistan alongside American troops ever since. 

Third, with the rise in Russian aggression, NATO is growing less obsolete, not more (and it is somewhat reassuring that Trump still says NATO is “very important” to him.) Shortly after the end of the Cold War, there were those who believed that perhaps the era of great power politics — and the threat of great power military aggression — was over. They were wrong, and unless we want to increase the risk of catastrophic great power conflict, we should double down on NATO’s proven deterrence and strength.

Finally, none of the above means that the EU is worth preserving in its present form. NATO prospered before the EU, and it can endure after the EU. All of the NATO security guarantees will still apply even if sovereign nations elect to retain their sovereignty. Supporting NATO while remaining skeptical of the EU’s worth and benefits is consistent with maintaining international peace and stability. I have yet to be convinced of the EU’s merit. NATO, by contrast, is indispensable.