In politics and geopolitics, people tend to cling to the old ways of thinking like a drowning man in a stormy sea clings to a life preserver. Case in point: NATO. Consider the reaction to President Trump’s performance at last week’s summit of the venerable Atlantic alliance, where he chided the Europeans for not hitting defense spending targets and seemed to avoid — somewhat pointedly, some thought — the standard expressions of devotion to NATO’s Article 5, which commits NATO members to consider an attack on one to be an attack on all.
“Donald Trump,” declared neoconservative thinker David Frum in The Atlantic, “is doing damage to the deepest and most broadly agreed foreign policy interest of the United States.” He called Mr. Trump’s overseas trip “an utter catastrophe.” Henry Farrell, writing in The Washington Post, called it “disastrous.” The New York Times said the president’s “repeated scolds” in Europe “are not just condescending but embarrassing.”
With so many establishment institutions and figures singing the same angry ballad, it must mean something. And it does: that they continue to cling to the old ways of thinking even as events demonstrate that those old ways no longer fit reality. The more that becomes apparent, the more tenaciously they grasp the status quo.
The New York Times gave the game away in calling NATO “an indisputably important alliance that has kept the peace for 70 years.” That’s demonstrably false. NATO kept the peace, brilliantly and heroically, for 41 years — from 1948, when it was established, until 1989, when its reason for existence expired with the downfall of the Soviet Union. Since that time, NATO not only hasn’t kept the peace (peace was largely a result of improved circumstances) but has been fomenting tensions that constitute an ominous flash point of potential war.
Consider the realities of the Cold War, when Bolshevik Russia had 1.3 million Soviet and client-state troops poised on Europe’s doorstep, including 300,000 in East Germany. Now that’s a threat, and NATO was created to deter that threat. That it did so, while the United States pursued its containment policy with varying degrees of sternness and effectiveness but ultimately with success, is a testament to the persistence and boldness of U.S. leadership at a harrowing time.
Those days are long gone. Now it is NATO that is threatening, adding 12 countries since the end of the Cold War and angling to bring in several more. It has pushed right up to the Russian border, a development that any country in Russia’s position would consider incendiary and a security threat. Indeed, in 2008, Russia warned the West about further eastward expansion by NATO, particularly into Ukraine and Georgia. U.S. Ambassador William Burns warned Washington that Russia considered further NATO enlargement to be “a potential military threat an emotional and neuralgic issue.”
Yet just two months later NATO officials declared that the alliance “welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO.” Six years after that the United States helped foster a coup against Ukraine’s democratically elected (though corrupt) leader in order to bring to the country a more Western-oriented leadership, more attuned to moving westward into the European orbit.
When Russia responded as it warned it would, preventing Ukraine from being extricated fully from its sphere of influence, the cry went up throughout Europe and America: Russian aggression; it must be stopped; it threatens all of Europe.
And yet when President Trump last week pressured NATO nations to increase their defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product, European leaders reacted as if they had been beset by a menacing dog. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a crowd in southern Germany, “The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out. I’ve experienced that in the last few days. We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”
What a thought. It has a ring similar to what Mr. Trump said during the late campaign (which he since has backed away from) — namely, that NATO is obsolete. NATO put all of Europe under an American security umbrella. Now nearly all of Europe and America, having pushed up against Russia, say the West is once again under threat from Russia. But, when Mr. Trump suggests the European powers should bolster their defense spending to meet that threat, the nettled Europeans respond that they can’t take that kind of abuse, they’re just going to have to separate from America.
But what about that Russian threat? Won’t Ms. Merkel want to get back under that security umbrella when the Russian bear growls and gets up on his hind legs with ominous malignity, threatening the Continent as in Cold War days?
The fact is that the Russian bear constitutes no such threat, and Mrs. Merkel knows it. A further fact is that Europe doesn’t need any U.S. umbrella in order to protect itself from external threats because it faces no such threats that require U.S. assistance. Its only serious outside threat is unchecked immigration of such magnitude, and of such cultural challenge, that any smooth assimilation will be extremely difficult, perhaps impossible. We only need to look at what’s roiling European politics these days to see that this threat agitates the European mind far more than any potential Russian hostility.
But don’t expect today’s establishment thinkers to incorporate those realities into their thinking. The status quo is too comfortable, however shattered it may be in the real world.
• Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, due out from Simon & Schuster in September, is a biography of William McKinley.