Trump, NATO, EU and liberal order

By Sumantra Maitra
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, July 12, 2018
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Heads of State and Government pose for a family picture during a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018. [Photo/Xinhua]

President Trump, on his way to a divided NATO summit, and a later scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has lambasted Germany over NATO spending. According to Trump, Germany and Europe have consistently been freeriding on American taxpayers, and not paying its fair share for European security. 

The reaction was predictable. For example, two representative articles, in the Financial Times, argued perfectly the case against Trump's stance on NATO. The arguments noted here were simple and are based on two pervasive myths. First it states that Trump is the cause of the current funding crisis in NATO, and second, Trump is determined to destroy the liberal international order. 

The arguments are of course flawed. Trump, with all his flaws, is consistent on his mercantile world view and in NATO his ideas are neither his, nor new, and are actually rather accurate. NATO, in its current form, is obsolete, and that's not an argument that Trump made first.

Consider this. NATO was enlarged after the cold war, despite continuous assurances to the Soviet Union and then Russia that NATO will never expand materially or territorially and push inexorably towards Russia's borders. There was significant opposition to NATO's expansion even from academic circles in the West, including the father of American cold war diplomacy, George Kennan, who said that it was the biggest mistake in geopolitics. 

Nevertheless, NATO expanded, partly due to German leaders like Volher Ruhe and other Central European leaders who wanted simultaneously to be under the American security umbrella, as well as move their frontiers away from Russia. The design was meant to conform that Europeans were dependent on American supremacy.

Unfortunately, the geopolitical scenario in 1989 was different to that in 2018. Europe is not united, European powers do not share the same threats, and European defenses have simply atrophied because of the assurance that the American cavalry is right around the corner to come to the rescue in case of need.

The pushback against that started around 2011, when Robert Gates, the then secretary of defense, lambasted NATO and warned that if NATO countries refuse to take more responsibility, then in the future it would be difficult to explain to an American taxpayer why they will continuously be willing to foot the bill.


His warnings were prophetic but were left unheard and laughed off. It was subsequently repeated by several of his colleagues from the U.S. department of defense, but nothing changed. Until Trump came. The bottom line is that Trump's concern isn't new. They are valid long-term concerns of every single American taxpayer, and Europe continues to ignore it at its own peril.

The second myth about Trump destroying the liberal order is even more logically unsound. There never was any liberal rule-based order, and might was always right, which is why there were unlawful interventions in Iraq, Kosovo and Libya. International law is essentially twisted due to the whims and fancies of great powers, and regardless of Trump or no Trump, it will continue to be so.


If one does empirical cost benefit analysis, it would suggest that the cost of the American forward presence, whether in Europe, or in Asia, isn't actually beneficial to America. It might be beneficial to the globe in times when life was smoother. But with the economic crisis in 2008, everything changed.


Great powers can afford to help others in good times and think of the global commons. In tough times, there's a tendency to look after oneself. That's precisely the case for taxpayers in the U.S., and to some extent in the U.K. The common people struggling with day to day life cannot be ridiculed if they continue to question the feasibility of spending large sums of money for some mythical order.

Finally, European sanctimony isn't helping either. After all, despite his rhetoric, Trump has been forthright with Russia in regards to providing arms supply to Ukraine or re-establishing the second fleet in Europe. European countries, on the other hand, weren't even united on the idea of sanctions on Russia or the Nord Stream pipeline. Regardless of the merit of each of these actions, sanctimony sounds hypocritical to American policy makers.


These are of course troubling times for the alliance. But as I wrote before, the only way one can survive in the international system is to rely on individual military and economic strength. Europe is now re-learning that age old wisdom, from the unlikeliest of all leaders. 

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