LONDON—Since the fall of communism in 1989, a year has not gone by without some high-level meeting or international conference wrestling with the question of whether the Western alliance, NATO, has passed its sell-by date. “Whither NATO?” is now a well-worn inside joke for the conference attending global elites so despised by Donald Trump and his followers.
However, with each passing week of chaos, confusion and amateurish public statements emanating from the modern day Tower of Babel, formerly known as the White House, the prospect of permanent damage to this revered institution is no longer an exaggerated fear. This time, many in Europe agree, the danger is real. Worse yet, we are rapidly approaching a point of no return—a decision point when European governments conclude that, despite its demonstrable success, the era of a U.S.-led NATO military alliance is ending and they must act accordingly.
We are not there yet. But for those who have worked over the last 70 years to establish and enhance American leadership of a stable, prosperous, democratic order, as well as for those who support and benefit from the policies and practices such a world order entails, it’s time to recognize the risk.
In doing so, it is especially important to consider the context in which Trump’s damage is being done. The critique of Western allies, like Germany, for insufficient defense spending did not begin with Trump. NATO alliance stalwarts like former Senators Mike Mansfield and Sam Nunn as well as the ever-present Bob Gates, secretary of defense for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have all made much the same point.
And while Trump has taken his complaint to an extreme by casting doubt on America’s pledge of collective defense, something no other president has ever even contemplated, it was Obama after all who loudly complained about “free riders,” countries who benefit from U.S. military spending and action and have sufficient resources but still don’t contribute their fair share. Most assumed Saudi Arabia and Germany were prime examples.
Beyond the question of NATO spending is the larger context of America’s willingness to act internationally and the extent to which it acts in concert with allies and partners. This part of the problem is too often ignored. The tragic truth is that it has been a long, long time since Washington has been both willing to lead internationally and willing to do so together with our Western allies.
Much has been written about the damage done to the Western alliance by the Bush administration’s arrogance in the lead up to both Afghanistan and Iraq. From the treatment of prisoners, to the abrogation of treaties, to the pre-Iraq war diplomatic blunders, to the disastrous prosecution of the war and its aftermath, as well as the absence of weapons of mass destruction, no doubt the two terms of Bush terms profoundly scarred America’s international reputation here in Europe.
If the Bush administration was marked by overreach, then the eight years of Obama could be described as underreach. The widespread perception among Europeans is that Obama never established the close working partnerships with leaders of Britain, France and Germany previously seen as a necessary component of American diplomacy. Nor, in the minds of most European governments, was the United States willing to act when crises erupted in Ukraine and Syria. And as much as anything, the refugees that flooded Europe as the Syria conflict went unaddressed for six long years were the final straw for British voters who chose to exit the European Union. As painful as it is to acknowledge, the Obama years were widely regarded as a typically American overreaction to Bush’s excesses.
Which brings us to President Trump. No doubt Trump’s attacks on NATO as obsolete, his inexplicable refusal to criticize Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, and his boorish treatment of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany are deeply damaging when taken in isolation. But coming as they do after 16 long years of European longing for a return to respected American leadership of the West, they are far more destructive.
After four straight administrations marked by seesaw leadership and erratic diplomacy, each of which weakened, albeit in different ways, perceptions of U.S. reliability and leadership, it was always going to be hard for a new President to restore trust and confidence. But now, as a consequence of four weeks of President Trump’s heresies and insult-driven diplomacy, it seems fair to say European confidence in America has reached a new low—a loss of confidence so profound that it may soon be extremely difficult to reverse.
To see how low we have sunk, it’s worth remembering France’s response during the Cuban Missile Crisis. President John Kennedy was determined to secure the full support of his French counterpart, General Charles de Gaulle. So, he sent Dean Acheson, the respected former secretary of state who was “present at the creation” of the key Western Institutions, to meet the prickly French president in Paris along with a CIA representative who was carrying the photographic evidence of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Remarkably, DeGaulle declined the CIA briefing Acheson offered, telling him that he had full confidence in Kennedy and took him at his word on a matter so grave. After the Iraqi WMD fiasco, that kind of trust is hard to imagine.
The solidarity of NATO has also been crucial to its success in deterring Soviet aggression and contributing to the emergence of a Europe whole, free and prosperous. Whether it was the invasion of Ukraine, the 9/11 attacks, the aggression of Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait, that solidarity was proven in crisis after crisis. If the Trump effect has indeed provoked a point of no return, we may not know it until a new crisis arises requiring NATO to take a stand.
In the meantime, European governments may well be willing to provide greater resources for defense. In the case of Germany, defense spending has been growing, even before Trump raised the subject. If the pace were accelerated, that is all to the good.
The dangers come when European governments develop an expectation that they can no longer rely on the United States. Will they make future decisions about sanctions on Russia based on a weakening NATO? What about the united European stance against Russia’s insistence on acceptance of its “sphere of influence” in former Soviet territories? Will a loss of confidence in American leadership change how France or Germany answer that crucial question?
Or take the Balkans, where NATO and European institutions were so successful in stopping Serbian aggression in Kosovo and promoting democratic government in all the former Yugoslav republics. Reports indicate that Moscow is stirring up Serbian nationalism again. Without an expectation of American leadership, Europeans may not be willing to protect those hard-won victories for the rule of law and democratic values.
At last week’s Munich security conference, Trump officials worked hard to reassure European leaders that U.S. support for NATO had not fundamentally changed. Vice President Mike Pence, in particular, sought to dispel doubts about America’s readiness to defend Europe and face down the growing Russian menace. While his statements, and similar comments by Defense Secretary James Mattis, hit all the proper notes, confidence has been so shaken that words alone are simply not enough. Europeans, too, will be watching the next crisis carefully. The right words are necessary but only actions will be sufficient.
At the same event, foreign ministers from Russia, China and Iran were putting forward a more troubling premise. Each in their own way asserted that this year marked the end of the “West” and the onset of a new era for Europe and the wider world. Their analysis was surely premature and self-serving, inasmuch as those countries have been making similar points for many years now. Tragically though, unless something changes, this time they may be right.