I have written about this before (see here and here), but I feel obliged to write about it again. Trump does not understand the strategic logic of alliances at all. For him, it is purely an economic transaction, much like his hotel business. Trump seems to believe that the goal of alliances is to maximize earnings and minimize losses. While this logic is perfectly sound for individual firms operating in the private market, it is absolutely the wrong approach when it comes to large-scale political institutions like military alliances. I have already written two posts addressing the strategic logic of alliances, so I won’t belabor the point here. I do, however, want to debunk Trump’s arguments regarding NATO spending levels.
Trump is correct in asserting that the majority of NATO member states pay less than 2% of GDP on defense, technically violating a core NATO membership requirement. His solution to abandon members that don’t “pay up” is completely bonkers. Here is why. The U.S. actually pays very little to defend Europe. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the American military presence in Europe has fallen by around 75%. Moreover, abandoning the Baltic states to Russian aggression would utterly collapse market confidence and economic stability in Europe, imperiling the global economy. If Trump thinks that a few billion dollars to support NATO is a lot of money, he’s going to have heart palpitations when he sees the money lost from the economic calamity that a conflict in Europe would cause. See, that is what Trump fails to understand: American-led alliances are not protection rackets. They aren’t designed purely to enrich the United States at the expense of other countries. Instead, they are engineered to engender stability and peace in an otherwise anarchic global environment. The United States is not like the Trump Corporation. It is such a large actor that its actions have consequences at a systemic level, so the comparison to Trump’s business is completely asinine. When Trump ripped someone off, it didn’t have systemic impacts on the economy writ large. When the United States abandons its allies, there are very clear and pernicious second order effects that Trump apparently is too thick to comprehend.
Now, some might complain that my analysis is incredibly unfair. In fact, I’m sure Trump supporters will say this because they seem to believe that literally anything that negatively effects Trump is unfair and “rigged.” These people would rightly argue that Trump never actually said he would abandon America’s allies. However, he certainly did imply it. His exact words when asked if he would defend NATO countries were, “If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.” The obvious extension of this is, “and if they don’t, maybe we won’t support them.” Regardless of what Trump would actually do as president, it’s important to understand that words matter. Taking this ambiguous position invites aggression, as it leaves open the possibility that America might actually not respond to Russian provocations. Trump claims to be an amazing negotiator, but he is too much of a nincompoop to realize that by introducing doubt into the United States’ commitment to collective security, he is undermining the deterrent value of NATO.
Trump also reveals his ignorance by attacking the countries that do the most to support NATO’s mission. As Stephen Sestanovich explains in the New York Times, “Mr. Trump clearly knows nothing about the allies that he specifically said the United States might not defend… the three Baltic States – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – have been among NATO’s star performers. Between 2010 and 2015, they increased their military spending 45%.”
I think Trump has a valid point regarding NATO. With increasing pressure from ISIS forces and Russian machinations in Eastern Europe, NATO members need to do more to assist the U.S. in maintaining regional stability. Trump’s decision to publicly announce that he may not support our allies, however, is irresponsible and utterly inexcusable: This is a problem that should be addressed by careful diplomacy, not moronic public announcements. Trump also needs to understand that NATO members punch above their weight in a number of other regards: they give out more per capita foreign aid, dedicate more soldiers to peacekeeping, and many accept far more refugees in need of assistance. They also suffer the brunt of sanctions against Russia. Our NATO allies are far from perfect, but they aren’t the con artists Trump makes them out to be. The only con artist here is Trump himself.