Trump, NATO, and the Burden of the Past

By Alexander G. Markovsky March 6, 2017

In his first speech to members of NATO, American Secretary of Defense Mattis said, “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do.”  This echoes his boss Donald Trump’s campaign statement, “Number one it (NATO) was obsolete, because it was designed many, many years ago.” Normally, a new president can count on the backing of his own party, but on this issue there is a rare consensus on both sides of the aisle in support of the existing policies.

The core divergence of geopolitical views is this:

  • Supporters of NATO see American commitments as implicitly limitless and irreversible. They insist that the arrangements have worked well for the United States, and any attempt to challenge them is not in America’s national interests. Ideologically, adherence to existing commitments defines our national interests.
  • Driven by effectiveness, not ideology, Trump believes the existing commitments are not eternal and are limited by resources. Therefore, we must define our national interests in order to shape our commitments — not allow existing commitments to define our interests.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, is a case in point. Established in April 1949, NATO was designed to serve three objectives:

  1. Deter Soviet expansionism.
  2. Prevent the revival of militarism in Europe.
  3. Encourage European political and economic integration.

At that moment in time Europe was in ruins and facing a formidable threat from the Red Army, and later from the combined forces of the Warsaw Pact. Given strategic and political realities, the United States emerged as the principal guarantor of peace. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact disintegrated as well.  So, if you are Vladimir Putin, you would ask the United States about NATO, “Against whom are you maintaining this beautiful friendship?”

And if you are Donald Trump, you realize that seventy years later the kids have grown up and the geostrategic reality is fundamentally different. Today, the European Union is a massive economic power, with a population of 500 million and a combined GDP akin to the United States.  Russia’s GDP is comparable to South Korea or Australia. The EU is sufficiently strong to maintain the regional order.

However, despite economic strength and manpower, Western democracies, having downgraded their military capabilities, continue to rely on the United States for maintaining their security. The absurdity is that while Europeans are enjoying a 35-hour work week, generous benefits and extended vacations, American workers have to put in 40 to 50 hours per week to support Europe’s defense.

And it gets better! With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, NATO found itself without a mission. “Mission accomplished” is not good news for a military alliance — it needs enemies for self-preservation.

Hence, the concept of an alliance was quietly converted into a doctrine of collective security. The significance is that while alliances identify potential adversaries and serve clearly defined objectives, the doctrine of collective security carries much broader implications. It may oppose any aggressive conduct anywhere in the world that may be interpreted as a threat to the peaceful international order. In this spirit NATO, paraphrasing John Quincy Adams, has gone around the world “in search of monsters to destroy” — often pursuing not strategic but moral goals in an attempt to promote Western values.

But the most troublesome aspect of this conversion is that in a violation of the verbal agreement between Secretary of State James Baker and Russian Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO launched a massive expansion to the east, growing from 16 countries before the reunification of Germany to 28 today. This expansion can be seen from Moscow only as a strategy to encircle Russia and turn its neighbors into hostile countries. It provokes Russia’s paranoia and could lead to a direct confrontation with the United States reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As George KennanAmerican diplomat and author of the concepts of “Cold War” and “containment,” prophetically wrote in the New York Times on February 5, 1997:

“….. expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era…. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

President Clinton, who was an architect of the expansion, ignored George Kennan’s warning and subsequently created a destabilizing environment in Europe, which was further exacerbated by the Obama administration.  Idealism and affinity have led to the over-extension of American commitments and resulted in financial burdens that, according to Trump, America can no longer afford.

As Lord Salisbury observed, “The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.

Alexander G. Markovsky is a Soviet émigré. He holds degrees in economics and political science from the University of Marxism-Leninism and an MS in structural engineering from Moscow University. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, where he owns a consulting company specializing in the management of large international projects. Mr. Markovsky has also written for the The Hill, Israpundit, New York Daily News, RedState, and WorldNetDaily. He can be contacted at

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