Pulling the Plug on NATO

“Trump Will Abandon NATO” heralded a headline in the January-February 2024 issue of The Atlantic. “If reelected, he would end our commitment to the European alliance, reshaping the international order and hobbling American influence in the world,” warned the subheading.

Anne Applebaum, the author of the article, quotes with an air of stunned disbelief Donald Trump saying at various times that he doesn’t “give a s***” about NATO, that European conflicts are not worth American lives, and that pulling back from Europe would save the U.S. lots of money. “NATO, founded in 1949 and supported for three-quarters of a century by Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike, has long been a particular focus of Trump’s ire,” she writes:

As president, Trump threatened to withdraw from NATO many times—including, infamously, at the 2018 NATO summit. But during Trump’s time in office, withdrawal never happened. That was because someone was always there to talk him out of it. [Former National Security Advisor John] Bolton says he did; [Secretary of Defense] Jim Mattis, [White House Chief of Staff] John Kelly, [Secretaries of State] Rex Tillerson [and] Mike Pompeo, and even Mike Pence are thought to have done so. But they didn’t change his mind. And if Trump is reelected in 2024, none of those people will be in the White House. 

Applebaum laments that all of these voices of restraint have broken with the former president and that “there isn’t another pool of Republican analysts who understand Russia and Europe.” In a second term, she continues, Trump would be surrounded by people who either share his dislike of America’s international security alliances or don’t know anything about them and don’t care. “The damage he did in his first term was reparable,” John Bolton told her. “The damage in the second term would be irreparable.”

Keep in mind that in her long journalistic career, Applebaum has never offered a sound insight, or even an interesting observation, about any issue of importance. On this occasion, however, she has unwittingly provided a near-perfect summary of all that is wrong about NATO, much of what was wrong with the Trump White House, and a clear picture of what he can do right if given a second chance. Ironically, but unsurprisingly, her arguments in favor of NATO match the list of objections to its continued existence held by America’s patriotic realists.

“Ending our commitment to the European alliance” would be an excellent idea. It is absurd that almost 80 years after the end of World War II and a quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the American Kaiserslautern Military Community (KMC) in Germany remains the largest U.S. military establishment abroad. This complex sprawls over 16,000 acres and houses 54,000 U.S. military personnel and their families. The Ramstein Air Base contained within the KMC alone employs 16,000 personnel.

That closing bases like the KMC and pulling out of Europe would save billions of dollars for the American taxpayer is beyond dispute. It is equally evident that the continued presence of U.S. forces in the Old Continent encourages continued free-riding by European members of NATO, most notably Germany. It has been known for decades that the longer U.S. forces remain, the less European NATO members will be motivated to invest in their own defense. Two years after the conflict in Ukraine erupted, this has not changed, notwithstanding the often hysterical rhetoric about the alleged Russian threat to NATO’s eastern borders.

Regarding money, it is noteworthy that the gross domestic product of NATO’s European members (i.e. the EU without Austria, Cyprus, Malta, and Ireland, but including non-EU member Britain) was worth just under $20 trillion in 2022. That same year, the GDP of the United States was just 25 percent higher at $25 trillion, but America accounted for over two-thirds of NATO’s military spending. As far back as 2014, NATO members each agreed to increase their military budgets to two percent of their GDP; by 2023, just 11, mostly minor Eastern European members, had done so. 

The list of NATO members who met that minimum 2 percent threshold doesn’t include any of the four major European NATO powers of Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. Nor does it include any of NATO’s wealthy smaller members, such as Benelux, Denmark, and Norway. In 2023, military spending of the 31 NATO member states (plus soon-to-be member Sweden) amounted to almost $1.4 trillion, but the U.S. accounted for—let me repeat—more than two-thirds of that total expenditure. Without America, the median defense spending of all other members would only reach 1.8 percent of their collective GDP.

A standard realist argument is that the U.S. leaving NATO would force Europe to spend more on its defense. This view implicitly assumes the Europeans would remain stuck in the Beltway-based security calculus. Far more importantly, such an act would finally enable key European states to make their own choices about their security policy and long-term grand strategy. It would enable Germany to reconsider its long-overdue rapprochement with Russia, which alone can stop Germany’s steep economic decline and resulting social disintegration. It would end the ability of minor Eastern European countries such as Poland to dictate to the rest of the NATO members a hawkish agenda concocted in Washington.

This is anathema to all certified neoconservatives, of course. Applebaum quotes one of them, Prof. James Goldgeier, author of several books on NATO, including Not Whether But When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO,  who says that the result would be chaotic. There is no alternative leadership available, Goldgeier says, no alternative source of command-and-control systems, no alternative space weapons, not even an alternative supply of ammunition. “Europe would immediately be exposed to a possible Russian attack for which it is not prepared, and for which it would not be prepared for many years,” he said.

It is true that two years after the dangerous Russian bear started its “unprovoked aggression” in Ukraine, the Europeans still have not developed alternative leadership or command-and-control systems, nor have they addressed their lack of ammunition supply. Thus, it stands to reason that we can assume one of two scenarios. 

First, it might be possible that Europeans deliberately continue to place the burden of their own defense on America, assuming that the ongoing absence of alternative defense capabilities—such as those mentioned by Goldgeier—will force the U.S. to provide them on an open-ended basis and foot the bill. If so, they are acting in cahoots with the neocon-neolib global-hegemonic clique across the Atlantic, which invokes Europe’s powerlessness as an argument for America’s eternal “engagement.”

More likely, the Europeans who matter (never mind the eastern fringe) don’t really believe that in a post-NATO world they would be exposed to a Russian attack, either immediately or in the long term, and that therefore they see no real need to prepare for such a contingency. If this view didn’t represent European thinking, then after the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, European countries would have acted resolutely to prepare for war, no matter the cost. If they really believed the invasion was a sign of aggressive Russian expansionism rather than a regional dispute, then they would be forced to act just as Britain did in the late 1930s, when even the Chamberlain government realized that appeasement of Hitler’s Germany would not work, that there would be no “peace in our time.” 

The failure of the Europeans to be as alarmed about Russia as neoconservatives would like them to be, their undeclared yet evident decision to remain unprepared for a possible Russian attack, indicates that there may be another sort of deep state at work in Paris, Berlin, Rome, and Madrid. There is still a class of European senior civil servants on the scene, especially in France and Italy, which is aware that the agenda of the American neoconservative/neoliberal consensus is ruinous to their countries’ fundamental interests. They realize, but cannot say so aloud, that it is impossible to divorce the striving for continued American hegemony in Europe—which is inherently harmful to their countries’ core identity and core interests—from the continued existence of NATO. 

As for the future, we can only hope that Applebaum is right, that Bolton, Mattis, Kelly, Tillerson, Pompeo, Pence, and their ilk won’t be in the White House if Trump gets a second chance. Donald Trump’s inability during his first term to make reasonable (let alone solid) personnel choices and his propensity to appoint backstabbing saboteurs and outright foes to his innermost circle was the greatest single failure of his presidency. The enemies within Trump’s cabinet gave a clear signal to the rest of America’s neoconservative/neoliberal policy apparatus that—for as long as they occupied the White House—the nominal chief executive could be ignored with impunity. Their infiltration rendered Trump just a transient headache that would pass and which may never be allowed to make a comeback.

We can also hope that Applebaum’s lament that “there isn’t another pool of Republican analysts who understand Russia and Europe” is correct. This would be excellent news. Of course, by “Republican analysts,” she means not only former cadres like Bolton, Mattis, Kelly, Tillerson, Pompeo, and Pence but also a host of Never Trumper alumni in the mold of Kristol, Robert Kagan, David Frum, Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, etc., some of whom happily and easily became Democrats during Trump’s presidency. To these people, “understanding Russia and Europe” only means hating Russia and striving to subjugate Europe.

This subjugation means not only to the international agenda of the benevolent American hegemon but also domestic submission to the United States’ rainbow-colored cultural and moral self-annihilation. To put it succintly, there is no trans-Atlanticism without transgenderism.

Keeping these people and anyone remotely connected to them away from any rank above GS-11 is a must if Trump makes a comeback. I remain skeptical, however, that Trump will be allowed a second term, regardless of the actual vote in November. If Trump is reelected and inaugurated against all odds, and if he makes awful personnel choices yet again, truly “the damage in the second term would be irreparable” (hat tip to John Bolton).

The most brazenly dishonest argument in favor of NATO that Applebaum presents is a historical one: the supposed parallel between the Cold War and our own time. “If the Soviet Union never attacked West Germany between 1949 and 1989, that was not because it feared a German response,” she writes.

If Russia has not attacked Poland, the Baltic states, or Romania over the past 18 months, that’s not because Russia fears Poland, the Baltic states, or Romania. The Soviet Union held back, and Russia continues to do so now, because of their firm belief in the American commitment to the defense of those countries… And once the Russians, or anyone else, no longer fear a U.S. response to an attack, then the chances that they will carry one out grow higher…

This is nonsense. Had there been no push by NATO to include Ukraine, there would have been no war in Ukraine, period. The notion that there are Eastern European dominos doomed to fall one after another without NATO ignores the fact that Russia evacuated those lands long before they joined the alliance. Even under Putin, Russia has not shown the slightest inclination to restore its lost Soviet-era presence anywhere except in its vital buffer zone with the West that is Eastern Ukraine. 

The matter-of-fact claim that without a U.S. guarantee Russia already would have attacked Poland and others is absurd. The Applebaum scenario is based on two mutually exclusive claims. First, that Russia is in fact weak, and it would only take continued Western resolve to supply Ukraine with weapons and money to defeat the paper bear. Second, that Russia is mighty and aggressive, and if Ukraine succumbs due to Western weakness and lack of resolve, a mighty and aggressive Russia will attack the next countries in line. This is a caricature of geopolitical analysis and an insult to a reader’s intelligence.

Applebaum ends her article with what she sees as an apocalyptic prediction. If Trump in a second term declares that he no longer supports NATO, all of America’s other security alliances would be in jeopardy as well. “Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and even Israel would figure they can no longer count on automatic American support.” The demise of NATO would signal to all that the United States is no longer a reliable ally, and all of America’s allies would begin to hedge. Many European countries would cozy up to Russia diplomatically (horror!), and America would be in retreat from the European stage. By the time we realize how much has changed, it will be too late.

What is an end-of-the-world scenario for a neoconservative is a new dawn for a realist. Not just Europe, but Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and even Israel should never have been made to rely upon automatic American military support, and it would be an excellent idea to disabuse them—or, indeed, any other foreign country—of any such expectation in the future. 

There should be nothing “automatic” in America’s response to the possible security challenges anywhere in the world. Otherwise, this country’s destiny, survival even, would depend on events such as the outcome of Taiwan’s presidential election, a sudden incident on the 38th parallel in Korea, or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decisions regarding Gaza today or Iran tomorrow. 

Throughout the Cold War, legions of European leftists of various hues—most of them Soviet fellow-travelers—routinely derided NATO as a tool of American imperialism. Their objections were predictable at the time of the alliance’s founding in 1949 and remained predictable for the rest of the Cold War. These critics should not be confused with the critics of NATO’s post-1991 metamorphosis.

Even during the early Cold War, there had been prominent Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, and others with solid, patriotic, and sovereignist credentials whose skepticism about NATO and qualms about America’s motives were both nuanced and credible. Their apprehensions about the United States’ rising might and its elite’s values and intentions existed well before World War II turned America into a global power. Many Europeans sensed with alarm that there was an urbanized financial powerhouse across the ocean, which was the relentless bearer and promoter of social and cultural modernity. 

Between the wars, the term “Americanization” entered virtually all European languages. This designation had intensely negative connotations. It implied an obsession with becoming rather than being and a radical rejection of all time-honored aesthetic standards, social hierarchies, and norms of civilized discourse. After 1945, the dislike of the cultural impact, power, and symbolism of the United States directed a significant segment of the right-leaning European intelligentsia into an instinctive anti-Americanism. It was eminently pan-European.

Just as there is today a visceral Russophobia among the American elite class, in the aftermath of World War II the dislike of the United States morphed into a cultural mentality common among European traditionalists. They feared and resented what they saw as the new hegemon. Like the Russophobia of today, this sentiment was not necessarily correlated to any specific acts of policy emanating from Washington. On the contrary, it treated each policy act as a reflection and reaffirmation of the actor’s nefarious motives—the founding of NATO included.

Back then, the accusation was somewhat unjust. American decision-makers of the late 1940s and 1950s were decent and rational patriots. Few of them were afflicted with absurd notions of imperial grandeur, which only appeared decades later once the Trotskyite left morphed into a neoconservative elite. Truman and his associates were forced to confront the Soviet threat, which was real. They were shaken, and rightly so, by George Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram” from Moscow. They saw the threats to Greece and Turkey in 1947 and to West Berlin in 1948 as imminent. They responded with the creation of NATO.

In its early years NATO was truly a defensive alliance based on the strategy of containment. Notably, the U.S. did not act to prevent French President Charles de Gaulle from pulling France out of NATO’s military structure in 1966, while the Soviets a decade earlier had destroyed much of Budapest to prevent Hungary from exiting the Warsaw Pact. It is also noteworthy that, largely thanks to NATO, Europe managed to avoid yet another war in the crisis-laden decades following 1945. Many wars were fought on the periphery of the bipolar divide, but none in its center.

NATO went rogue after the collapse of the USSR and its shaky military alliance. Its eastward expansion, which George Kennan termed the biggest strategic mistake in American history, was due entirely to the pathology of Washington’s post-Cold War global-hegemonic regime. The Western alliance today is an anachronism, a chronic threat to peace, and above all, the iron fist of American wokedom. The vision of an America and a world free of NATO’s pathologies is nevertheless elusive for now.

It is no longer possible to talk of “America,” a real country of 336 million souls, as a discrete actor in world affairs. What we have instead is a regime that will give up on NATO only if there is regime change in Washington, D.C. Not a temporary change, like the ephemeral one in January 2017, but a revolutionary change that would sweep away neoliberals and neoconservatives alike, the globalist heads and hegemonist tails of the same coin.

It would be in the American interest that this happens before the current ruling cabal takes us down the path of war and nuclear Armageddon. This it will most assuredly do rather than give up on its exceptionalist delusions, hegemonist obsessions, and cultural engineering embodied in NATO.

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