Donald Trump got into some trouble last week when he told the New York Times’ David Sanger and Maggie Haberman that when it came to NATO allies who might come under attack but had not pulled their own weight in the alliance, “I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, ‘Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.’”
This is heresy to the DC foreign policy establishment, which uses NATO to justify part of its existence and to fund cushy junkets to Europe. As Michelle Obama and now Melania Trump have reminded us, your word is your bond, and the DC foreign policy establishment has promised to spill American blood in defense of Talinn, Riga, and Vilnius. So for them, that’s the end of that.
For Trump, however, the theme is “America First.” According to the GOP candidate, the term implies to him nothing more than that “we are going to take care of this country first before we worry about everybody else in the world.” It’s a sentiment so modest that it’s both uncharacteristic of Trump and hard to argue with.
But it’s from this point of view that Trump’s stated preference makes no sense. Trump told Sanger and Haberman that when it comes to NATO–and presumably other alliances–he thinks the the U.S. government should be “reasonably reimbursed for the tremendous cost of protecting these massive nations with tremendous wealth.”
Modifiers aside, although that’s somewhat more self-aware than the status quo, it’s still deranged. The U.S. military is not some global gendarmerie to be hired out to those who can afford her services. (What if China decided to hire us out?) Rather, the American people and their leaders are supposed to figure out some sort of intelligible interests for which we would go to war, then try to prevent or, if impossible, win such a war.
To get past these obvious problems, the DC establishment has used Rube Goldberg-style logic to connect the well being of villagers in the Latvian suburbs to unemployed Rust Belt machinists.
The fact is that NATO or no NATO, with Estonia spending 2 percent of GDP on defense or 20 percent, there is nothing in Estonia worth fighting a war with Russia over. It is a terrible truth of international politics that some smaller, weaker states are consigned to living next to larger, bullying ones (just ask Porfirio Díaz), but Estonia’s particular dilemma bears little on the well-being of the United States.
This would have been a very relevant fact to consider before the United States rushed into an Article V commitment to the country, but it remains relevant today. Unless one attributes witchy and transitive properties to our dozens of treaty commitments, the damage from letting the Baltic states be bullied or even Finlandized by Russia is far less than the cost of backing up a commitment to defend them. Perhaps this is why there was no NATO military plan for defending the Baltic states until five years after they were admitted into the alliance. Best not to think about it.
NATO has been transformed from a reflection of U.S. interests in Europe into something elites use to define those interests: get into NATO, and you become something worth fighting for. That gets things backward. There’s a lot in Europe that bears hardly at all on U.S. security these days, including a number of NATO member-states. Elites–including “America First” ones like Donald Trump–ought to come to grips with that reality.