Let’s start with a basic idea that even the crazy drunk guy at the end of the bar can understand. If you have an agreement among a large group of nations that they will share the financial burden of funding a mutual defense organization, then it’s not right for most of those nations not to contribute what they’ve promised. That situation describes NATO, where beside the United States, reportedly only four nations are currently meeting their obligations.
It’s something I’ve complained about it in the past, particularly when Europe was begging President Obama to get involved in Libya. What concerns me isn’t so much the idea of fairness (as I’ll explain) as the desire I have for Europe to develop some more peacekeeping and humanitarian relief capabilities, so that they don’t have to come running to us for the simple reason that they cannot do something themselves. I don’t mind being first among equals, but I also want the ability to say that some foreign policy and military missions are not our problem and shouldn’t be our responsibility.
In this context, I am not reflexively opposed to Trump’s aggression towards NATO if the end result is that our European partners bear their fair share and develop some more capabilities and even a little independence. I think this goal could be accomplished more respectfully and tactfully, and without raising so much unnecessary anxiety about our commitment to mutual defense, but I could live with it if it gets a good result.
One thing that the crazy drunk guy at the end of the bar probably doesn’t understand is what it would mean if these countries actually spent what they’re supposed to spend on defense.
But many European leaders are responding to Trump’s push by agreeing to spend more while also saying that all Western allies — including the United States — must not abandon the basic values that helped create a Western security backbone in the years since 1945.
Only four nations apart from the United States meet NATO commitments for defense spending. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is among the laggards, and it would need to nearly double its budgetary commitments to get there, ballooning its military into Europe’s most powerful.
If we told people that Trump has his people over in Munich right now demanding that Germany double its defense spending so that they once again are Europe’s most powerful military, that would sound a lot less appealing than saying that they’ll simply start paying what they’ve promised. The veterans of our World Wars are almost all dead now, but for most of the 20th Century, you wouldn’t find any support for a plan that would make Germany the preeminent military on the Continent.
Perhaps that’s nothing more than an old prejudice that dies hard, but it will still make a lot of people nervous, including the Russians who lost 20 million dead to the Germans in the second world war alone.
Another thing the crazy drunk guy at the end of the bar probably won’t understand is that we’ve wanted Europe to be dependent on us, which is part of the reason that we’ve been okay with these countries not meeting their obligations. It keeps them from getting overly militarized and fighting among themselves, and it gives us a lot more influence over their politics.
I’ve grown impatient with this aspect of our relationship, even though I understand the risks of changing it. Those risks should be debated, but there is no debate of that kind taking place in Congress or in the Trump administration.
Now, on the fairness issue, that’s compelling and easy to understand, but I personally don’t care about it. The fairness of the situation should be properly understood as part of the greater debate about roles, capabilities and influence.
What really undermines the fairness issue, though, is taking a cold, hard look at the bottom line. If Europe spending more on defense meant that we could spend less, then the average taxpayer in our country might stand to benefit. But that’s not what Trump is promising us. In his press conference on Thursday, he promised us this:
I’ve ordered a plan to begin building for the massive rebuilding of the United States military. Had great support from the Senate, I’ve had great from Congress, generally.
We’ve pursued this rebuilding in the hopes that we will never have to use this military, and I will tell you that is my — I would be so happy if we never had to use it. But our country will never have had a military like the military we’re about to build and rebuild. We have the greatest people on earth in our military, but they don’t have the right equipment and their equipment is old. I used it; I talked about it at every stop. Depleted, it’s depleted — it won’t be depleted for long. And I think one of the reason I’m standing here instead of other people is that frankly, I talked about we have to have a strong military.
Setting aside how successfully Trump “used” this issue on the campaign trail, on the substance it’s clear that the result of his domestic military buildup combined with his insistence that European countries spend much more on defense is that the West will invest more in war-making capabilities and less on everything else. We won’t save any money in the budget regardless of what Europe does or doesn’t do. If we’re hoping to get a financial boon out of Trump’s tough talk with NATO, that’s a pipe dream.
So, the thing to ask the crazy, drunk guy at the bar is not if he thinks Europe should pay it’s fair share but if he wants to grow the deficit, invest more in guns and less in schools and health, make Germany a military colossus again, and reduce the influence and leadership of America in the bargain.
The truth is, there’s nothing sacred about the status quo and I could support some of these changes. But not the way Trump is doing it. His way is the worst way.