Whether NATO has outlived its utility is not an issue for Trump to decide
President Trump is having a war of words again. This time, against the only real allies that the US has, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, commonly known as NATO.
The organization is nearly 70 years old. Formed in the aftermath of the havoc of World War II that witnessed near destruction of most European countries, nearly 37 million deaths, and immeasurable damage to their economies, the treaty was meant to put Western Europe on an integrated platform to defend their countries against any repetition of such a fate in the future.
But along with it, the treaty was also meant to withstand the growing threat of Soviet expansionism that had already brought within its grasp several eastern European countries. In this, the US played the role of mentor, provider, and guide.
But Trump had something else in mind. He had started this lambast early in his campaign when he called the organization outdated, lamenting to his cheering crowd that the US could not afford to pay to defend countries who would not pay their dues to the entity.
He claimed the US was paying the bulk of NATO’s expenses (according to him, up to 90%), and countries like Germany, UK, France, etc were riding on the shoulders of the US by not paying their share.
Trump believers took his words at face value. From his statement, it would seem to the public that the US had been carrying the burden of NATO’s costs and the other members are having a free ride. This is far from the truth.
What Trump was referring to was defense expenditures of NATO countries vis-a-vis the US, and not costs of NATO expenditures. The US has the highest defense expenditure (over $600 billion annually) in the world which is about 5% of their GDP, highest in the developed world.
This stands against the average defense expenditure among other NATO members, which has been less than 2% of GDP annually. True, the members had committed to raising their defense expenditure, but have not been able to allocate enough resources to the defense budget, as these countries have more competing social demands for budgetary allocations.
But President Trump would have none of this. As a presidential candidate, he had threatened to cut loose from NATO, and even withdraw defense support to Germany and Japan (not a NATO member, but is supported by the US by having military bases there) and reduce NATO payments.
During his campaign, Trump had famously declared that NATO was obsolete, and that “NATO was set up at a different time. NATO was set up when we were a richer country. We’re not a rich country anymore. We’re borrowing, we’re borrowing all of this money … NATO is costing us a fortune and yes, we’re protecting Europe with NATO but we’re spending a lot of money.”
NATO members (UK, Germany, and France prominent among them) had heard his rhetoric and treated it as attention-seeking popular utterances which he would let pass when he assumed presidency.
But like many others of his campaign statements that he would resurrect after he assumed presidency, his lambasting of NATO continued, which came into full force this week when he met with other NATO leaders in Brussels.
As before, President Trump rebuked the NATO countries for not spending enough on defense. Although he did not reiterate his threats of reducing US support to NATO, he urged them to increase their defense spending to as high as 4% of GDP, a request that western European countries can hardly heed.
What is striking is that Trump was not bothered that his statement and view of NATO had put to jeopardy an alliance that was primarily put together by his own country, to hold intact a war-broken territory and fend off the threat of Soviet expansion in the 50s.
This is an alliance of countries that has sustained peace and development over a territory that had seen two world wars, and the expansion of totalitarianism.
For all his talk, President Trump did finally sign the joint statement at the end of the summit (unlike his refusal to sign the G7 joint statement in Canada last month). But what is ironic is that even before the ink dries, he will fly off to Helsinki for another summit, with President Putin of Russia -- the country which is the biggest opponent of NATO.
No wonder his NATO partners are not only puzzled, but also concerned with his bonhomie with Putin, whom Trump will be seeing for the first time as president. His statement earlier last week that his meeting with Putin “might be easier than meeting with NATO allies” only reinforced their concerns.
Whether NATO has outlived its utility or not is an issue that President Trump cannot decide as an executive privilege. His core supporters may not care one way or another, but people who worry about the role of leadership that US plays in the world do.
His trashing of NATO with words is one thing, but relinquishing the US role in NATO is another. This must come through Congress and after long deliberations on what role the US should play in the world.
For a country that has military and defense alliances with scores of countries around the world, a country that survives on support of its defense operations globally, a seven-decade old treaty cannot be dismissed as outdated because the other members do not spend enough on their defense expenditures.
The US defense expenditures do not pay for NATO alone; these pay for the presence of US forces worldwide that ensure early intervention of conflicts which threaten the US and its allies.
The US does not gain much if other NATO countries do level up with the US in defense expenses, but it loses much if the alliance is weakened by apparent lack of support to the organization from reckless remarks.
The winner in this war of words is not the US, but Russia, which Trump forgets to point as a threat to western European integrity and peace. The sooner this sense is driven home to President Trump, the better it is for the US.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.