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Trump Should Get Out of NATO Now, But Nicely

Bossing, bullying, and nickel-and-diming won't make for an easy divorce.
trump NATO bye

According to Politico, the American delegation to the illustrious Munich Security Conference—the security counterpart to the elite World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland—was apparently “dumbfounded” by the hostile reaction they received from European speakers, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Steinmeier even took aim at the Trump administration’s hallowed “Make America Great Again” slogan, accusing the United States of “rejecting the idea of the international community.” Steinmeier characterized Trump’s position this way: “Every country should fend for itself and put its own interests over all others…’great again’—even at the expense of neighbors and partners.” 

Ironically, Steinmeier’s acerbic comments seem to conclude that if the United States becomes uncomfortable with continuing to effectively subsidize the defense of wealthy European states, which have long been capable of being at least the first line of defense for themselves, it is inflicting suffering on its allies and doesn’t even believe in the “international community.” Steinmeier’s grumbling is akin to that of an entitled young adult still living at home after being told by his parents to get a job.

The NATO alliance was established to protect war-devastated Western European nations against a possible Soviet threat until they got on their feet economically again. Dwight Eisenhower even said that if American troops remained in Europe too long, NATO would have failed. Yet long after the European economic miracle—amazing prosperity achieved during a robust recovery in the decade or so after the war—and long after the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO, instead of going away, has expanded its territory and mission. The American military remains in Europe to guarantee the security of nations that have a combined GDP greater than that of the United States. Meanwhile, Russia, the successor “threat” to the Soviet Union, has a GDP equivalent to that of Spain. The overextended United States also has a staggering national debt of $23 trillion and eye-popping unfunded government mandates at all levels that amount to between $150 and $200 trillion.

One might conclude from this that Trump’s policy of angrily haranguing and belittling his NATO allies into coughing up a few more dollars for their own defense is the right one. Trump crudely understands the problem but has come up with the wrong solution. The many Eurocentric analysts, who dominated the American foreign policy elite during the Cold War and are now trying to hang on to relevance, keep hyping the general Russia threat by excessively demonizing its president, Vladimir Putin, who is really just another tin-pot dictator.

A third way is still possible, one that avoids both placating the hand-wringing Eurocentric establishment and the nickel-and-diming of NATO allies that Trump desires.

The worst fear of the Eurocentrics is that Trump will, before leaving office, withdraw from the NATO alliance, much as he did with the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, the international agreement on climate change, and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty. Yet this is the proper, though radical, approach. It needs to be done immediately, so that it can’t be reversed by the next president. The problem is that Trump has been rude and obnoxious enough to the Europeans that the divorce might very well make Britain’s exit from the European Union look like a walk in the park. The ideal would have been to have had a previously cordial relationship with Europe, followed by a U.S. statement that the European economic miracle has allowed them to withstand a stagnant Russia and they need to finally take primary responsibility for their own defense. 

This would have allowed the United States rebuild its dissipated power by reducing government spending and debt and reallocating the remaining military forces to the Pacific to hedge against a rising China. Such a change is critical, and it remains to be seen whether it can be achieved.

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and director of the Independent Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty. His new book, War and the Rogue Presidency: Restoring the Republic After Congressional Failure, was released in May 2019.