War Stories

The Free World’s Landlord

Trump’s persistent attacks on NATO can only undermine America’s economy and security.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Pensacola Bay Center on Saturday in Pensacola, Florida.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

In a little-noted passage of his speech at a Saturday rally in Pensacola, Florida, mostly devoted to support for Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, President Trump revived a theme that some of his aides had hoped he’d abandoned—his demeaning of America’s allies, his dismissal of NATO as an outfit of no real use to U.S. interests, and his threat not to send troops to defend its members from attacks unless they pony up more money.

Or, as he put it, sounding more like a nasty landlord or a Mafia chieftain than the leader of the free world, “You gotta pay, you gotta pay … You don’t pay, we’re outta there, right?”

And so out went months’ worth of efforts by top security officials—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster—to assure European allies that despite the anti-NATO rhetoric Trump has invoked time and again since his campaign, the administration really is committed to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which proclaims that an attack on one member will be taken as an attack on all.

Here are a few more passages from Trump’s speech:

So we’ll have a nation that doesn’t pay, then their nation gets frisky with whoever—Russia. So we have a nation that doesn’t pay, the nation gets aggressive—we end up in World War III for somebody that doesn’t even pay … We’re paying for 80 percent of NATO … it helps them a hell of a lot more than it helps us, OK? … Germany is paying 1 percent [of GDP], we’re paying 4 percent. Explain that one to me, right? … So I said to Angela [Merkel], I said, Angela, send a little of that cash flow our way.

Before getting to the main problem with this outlook, let’s unpack his premises.

First, Trump seems to think Europeans might cause a war by getting “frisky” and “aggressive” with Russia, rather than the other way around—another case, the most bizarre to date, of Trump criticizing our closest allies while painting Russian President Vladimir Putin as innocent.

Second, Trump’s numbers aren’t quite right. The United States spends about 3.6 percent of its GDP on defense, and Germany spends about 1.2 percent of its GDP. But under half of the U.S. military budget goes to defend Europe, where most NATO members are located (we also have deployments in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere, which Germany does not), so, taking that into account, the disparity isn’t so huge.

Third, he seems to think—in this speech and on other occasions when he’s filed the same complaint—that the allies pay us to protect them. (“I said, Angela, send a little of that cash flow our way.”) In reality, each country has its own military establishment and budget. In the councils of NATO, they’ve each pledged to spend 2 percent of their GDP on the military (with varying degrees of fidelity), but this is a guideline, not a requirement; it’s not like the rent on an apartment in Trump Tower.

Finally, though NATO helps Europe “more than it helps us,” it does help us quite a bit. This is true in a narrow and a broad sense. In the narrow sense, it’s worth noting that the only time Article 5 has ever been invoked was after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when America’s allies pledged to come to our aid. This wasn’t a scenario that anyone envisioned when the treaty was signed in 1949. Still, at the peak of the Afghanistan war (which was fought initially to destroy the base of the 9/11 attackers), the allies provided about one-third of the foreign troops on our side, even though they hadn’t come under attack themselves. Even now, as the mission has shifted, they still contribute about half the troops.

But more important is the broad sense of how NATO helps us, and this is something that Trump doesn’t understand about international politics. The United States is a global power, and it has to be, since it relies on so many other countries for investments, markets, and resources. We need a stable global order to preserve those interests. NATO helps preserve that order and America’s place in it in several ways. It defends countries aligned with our interests (and, in a special twist, with our values), and it lets us deploy tens of thousands of troops and a massive military infrastructure in a central part of the world, within rapid range of many theaters of possible conflict. If NATO did not exist, U.S. interests—political, military, economic, and democratic—would tangibly suffer.

Does any of this matter? Do Trump’s remarks, hurled like red meat to ravenous xenophobes (the transcript shows the crowd applauding his slurs on NATO five times), matter? Do they worry our allies or diminish our power and influence?

Well, yes, they do.

Article 5 is formally a pledge of commitment in wartime, but its main purpose is to sustain the alliance and build mutual confidence at all times. In this sense, it works like an insurance policy: You should feel free to go about your business, secure that if your house gets robbed or burns down while you’re away, we will take care of it. If the insurance company were to raise any doubts about this fact, policyholders would understandably get nervous, change their behavior—maybe change companies.

Tillerson, Mattis, and McMaster can recite the reassuring words that their predecessors have uttered in ministerial summits since the end of World War II. The allies nod their heads and act relieved, but they have always wondered, to some extent, whether in the event of an invasion, the United States really would come to their defense with the same urgency that they would if America were under attack directly. And now they see a president—the current president—pretty much saying that, no, he wouldn’t, that he regards the whole alliance as a protection racket.

And Trump’s actions have reinforced his words. The dismantling of the diplomatic corps, the failure to nominate policy specialists in the State and Defense Departments (there are still no assistant secretaries for Near Eastern Affairs, East Asian and Pacific Affairs, European Affairs, and so forth), the failure to nominate ambassadors in any but a few countries—all of this conveys the message that the United States, under this president, no longer cares about much of the world; that, even in areas where it has direct security interests, it doesn’t value consultation with allies.

Yes, there are acting assistant secretaries and ambassadors, and many of them are skilled and devoted foreign service officers or bureaucrats. But they lack the imprimatur of the current administration; they can’t be seen as the president’s delegates; their words can’t be trusted as reflecting the views of the president or even of their cabinet secretaries.

And so we see Germany taking more assertive steps on the world stage, we see France supplanting the U.S. as the West’s chief diplomatic force in Syria, we see South Korea and Japan talking publicly about maybe building their own nuclear arsenal, we see Putin signing a deal to share nuclear-power technology with Egypt, and we hear murmurs of insecurity from the Baltic states and Ukraine. We see the rise of a Saudi prince with reformist desires but also pecuniary impulses who doesn’t get the quiet guidance that he might once have received from an American official. We see our Asian allies forming their own trade alliance, separate from the United States, after Trump rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In other words, we see the United States getting shut out of areas where we once dominated or at least shared an interest.

The concern to some, and source of glee to others, is that this trend isn’t the result of mere incompetence on the part of the American president. Rather, it seems to be his design. He wants to pull back from the world. He doesn’t care what happens elsewhere or who gains what, when, how—unless it involves terrorists who might attack the United States, in which case he drops more bombs on targets that the military has identified as terrorist havens, with no concern for civilians who might get in the way (and whose relatives might react by becoming terrorists themselves) and no interest in shaping the political settlement after the rubble stops bouncing.

Trump doesn’t understand that American security and prosperity depend in good part on living in a world that’s conducive to our thriving, and the world doesn’t spin that way on autopilot. He doesn’t understand that America can’t thrive by itself, much less by dissing our allies and sending them scrambling for alternative arrangements. Those Make America Great Again hats, which Trump’s supporters in Pensacola were wearing or waving, weren’t made in America—and neither is much of what has actually made America great.