3 Ways Americans Get NATO Wrong

U.S. leadership requires strong alliances.

The March 22 Zaventem airport and Maalbeek metro attacks in Belgium thrust America’s commitment to Europe, and NATO in particular, into high relief as a political issue for 2016. It’s an odd note at a time of mourning for Europe. But in some ways, NATO offers a pretty illustrative prism of the leading candidates’ worldviews.

What is the anatomy of NATO support in the United States? There is, to put it delicately, a plurality of views regarding the United States’ outsized NATO commitment. That commitment has been maintained with eternal vigilance by a small, bipartisan cadre of statesmen, from Harry Truman to Scoop Jackson to John McCain. They have been willing to fend off the tripartite onslaught of America Firsters, dovish progressives and those who see America’s strategic future more clearly reflected in the waters of the Pacific.


Three Traditions of American NATO Skepticism

The strains of resentment toward the Atlantic alliance—and what Obama called its “free riders” in his interview with the Atlantic—have a long history. This is particularly true in Congress. Consider this: In 1966 and 1971, Democratic leader Mike Mansfield led dogged, and ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to reduce U.S. forces in Europe in favor of more troops in the Middle East and the Asia Pacific. The Clinton administration’s 1998 push for NATO enlargement to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic was met with withering opposition from both parties’ ideological flanks. At the time, John Ashcroft called it “treaty creep.” In 1999, the Republican House majority voted overwhelming against U.S. participation in the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. Members of Congress are fond of citing Robert Gates’ 2011 valedictory proclamation of NATO’s “dim if not dismal future” if European alliance members do not spend more money, and better.

The three forces of American ambivalence toward NATO are at work in the 2016 presidential election as well.

On the front of nationalist isolationism, Donald Trump is bringing his own brand of erratic punditry to NATO’s future and, as you’d expect, it seems incoherent, contradictory and amateurish. He dived in, calling for a reform of NATO’s mandate: “N.A.T.O. is obsolete and must be changed to additionally focus on terrorism. . .” On combating ISIS, Trump’s bite-sized Twitter doctrine is “take the oil, build the wall, Muslims, NATO!” Even though Trump is building this plane midflight, it’s clear where he’ll eventually touch down: on the landing strip of resentment and isolationism, in line with the virulent strain of populism he is trying to tap into. Trump stated ominously that it was “time to renegotiate” the U.S. NATO role along with bilateral alliances with South Korea and Japan, hinting at a drastic drawdown in commitment.

Trump’s perception of the U.S.-European relationship is transactional at best and dissociative at worst. He bemoans how NATO allies—Germany, in particular—have abdicated responsibility in Ukraine to the United States. Apparently his plucky band of foreign-policy advisors have not had a chance to tell Trump that Germany and France led the Normandy format negotiations that produced the Minsk agreements; that European assistance to Ukraine is over $11 billion, compared to $760 million from the United States; or that it was the prospect of trade and EU association that sparked the Maidan protests in the first place. The July 2016 Warsaw NATO Summit will likely be a target-rich environment for his id-driven invective.

On the dovish progressive front, there’s Bernie Sanders, whose reflexively antimilitary and more accommodating view to Russia taps a tradition stretching that includes Paul Wellstone, the Nation magazine and Henry Wallace. While he has not made NATO a major issue in his 2016 presidential campaign, he opposed NATO’s eastward expansion as an unnecessary affront to Russia and, in 1996, was one of a small group to vote against the act to facilitate NATO enlargement to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Today, Sanders is against NATO expansion to Ukraine, Georgia, Macedonia and Montenegro. More recently, at Georgetown University in November 2015, Sanders called for a new NATO-like organization that includes Russia to “confront the security threats of the 21st century.” The aim of his NATO 2.0 to tackle violent extremism through greater emphasis on economic opportunity is at once more relaxed about great power authoritarianism and less focused on defense.