Human beings often choose self-delusion over painful reality, and so in the days and weeks to come, we will hear reassurances that the NATO alliance is in good shape. After all, there have been spats in the past — over the Suez crisis in 1956, Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s, missile deployment in the Reagan years and, of course, Iraq. American presidents have been complaining about shortfalls in European defense spending for decades. President Trump is not wrong to criticize Germany’s pipeline deal with Russia. As for this week’s fractious summit, we are urged to focus on the substance, not the rhetoric. U.S. forces in Europe have been beefed up in recent years, and new plans are in place to resist Russian aggression. On the ground, the alliance still functions.
All true, but unfortunately beside the point. Small troop deployments and incremental defense increases don’t mean much when the foundations of the alliance are crumbling — as they are and have been for some time. And pointing to previous differences ignores how much political and international circumstances have changed over the past decade. Europe faces new problems, as well as the return of some of the old problems that led to catastrophe in the past; and Americans have a very different attitude toward the world than they did during the Cold War. This is not just another family quarrel.
The transatlantic community was in trouble even before Trump took office. The peaceful, democratic Europe we had come to take for granted in recent decades has been rocked to the core by populist nationalist movements responding to the massive flow of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. For the first time since World War II , a right-wing party holds a substantial share of seats in the German Bundestag. Authoritarianism has replaced democracy, or threatens to, in such major European states as Hungary and Poland, and democratic practices and liberal values are under attack in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. France remains one election away from a right-wing nationalist leadership, and Italy has already taken a big step in that direction. Meanwhile, Britain, which played such a key role in Europe during and after the Cold War, has taken itself out of the picture and has become, globally, a pale shadow of its former self. The possibility that Europe could return to its dark past is greater today than at any time during the Cold War.
Some of that has to do with the changing attitude of the United States in recent years. It’s little secret that President Barack Obama had no great interest in Europe. Obama, like Trump, spoke of allied “free riders,” and his “pivot” to Asia was widely regarded by Europeans as a pivot away from them. Obama rattled Eastern Europe in his early years by canceling planned missile-defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic as an inducement to Vladimir Putin to embrace a “reset” of relations. In his later years he rattled Western Europe when he did not enforce his famous “red lines” in Syria. Both actions raised doubts about American reliability, and the Obama administration’s refusal to take action in Syria to stem the flow of refugees contributed heavily to the present strain.
Obama was only doing what he thought the American people wanted. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the 2008 financial crisis, left Americans disenchanted with global involvement and receptive to arguments that the alliances and institutions they supported for all those years no longer served their interests. The Obama administration tried to pare back the American role without abandoning the liberal world order, hoping it was more self-sustaining than it turned out to be. But the path was open to a politician willing to exploit Americans’ disenchantment, which is precisely what Trump did in 2016.
NATO has never been a self-operating machine that simply chugs ahead so long as it is left alone. Like the liberal world order of which it is the core, it requires constant tending, above all by the United States. And because it is a voluntary alliance of democratic peoples, it survives on a foundation of public support. That foundation has been cracking in recent years. This week was an opportunity to shore it up. Instead, Trump took a sledgehammer to it.
Never mind the final communique that Trump deigned to sign, or his reassurance at the end that the alliance was “very unified, very strong, no problem,” and or his claim that “I believe in NATO.” In his press comments alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in his tweets and in his private comments to European leaders, Trump made clear that he does not believe in NATO. In fact, he used this summit to lay out for the American people why NATO was not only “obsolete,” as he once said, but also a rotten deal for them.
Consider the question of allied military spending. As many pointed out, Trump could have come to Brussels and taken credit for the increased commitments that the Allies have made — and of course he did force Stoltenberg to give him credit. But then he moved the goal posts. He insisted the 2 percent of gross domestic product mark must be reached not by 2024, as agreed by the alliance (including the United States), but by January — something he knows is impossible. Then he went further, insisting that the allies spend 4 percent of their GDP on defense, higher even than his own defense budget.
These are not negotiating tactics. They are the tactics of someone who does not want a deal. In the private meeting, Trump is reported to have warned the allies that if they did not meet the 2 percent standard by January the United States would “go it alone.” To Stoltenberg he publicly warned that the United States was “not going to put up with it.” Whether he has any intention of making good on such threats scarcely matters. In his tweets, he asked, “What good is NATO” if Germany was paying Russia for gas? Why should the United States pay billions to “subsidize Europe” while it was losing “Big on Trade”? Those comments were not aimed at Europe. They were designed to discredit the alliance in the eyes of his faithful throng back home.
But even Trump must know the likely response in Europe. The insults and humiliations he inflicted on allied leaders will not be forgotten or forgiven. They will make it impossible for European leaders to win public support for the spending Trump disingenuously claims to want. What German leader after such a tongue-lashing could do Trump’s bidding and hope to survive politically?
Any student of history knows that it is moments like this summit that set in motion chains of events that are difficult to stop. The democratic alliance that has been the bedrock of the American-led liberal world order is unraveling. At some point, and probably sooner than we expect, the global peace that that alliance and that order undergirded will unravel, too. Despite our human desire to hope for the best, things will not be okay. The world crisis is upon us.