Since the beginning of his campaign, it’s been clear that Donald Trump is, at best, skeptical of the role NATO plays in the modern world. He has called it obsolete. He has claimed, falsely, that other countries owe the United States money for its operation (the issue isn’t paying into NATO, it’s each country agreeing to increase funding of their own militaries, which they are all doing). So it seemed like a relief when Donald Trump met with Angela Merkel last Friday, and pledged his support for NATO. Today, we found out that, as usual, he was lying. Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, is going to skip an important NATO summit in favor of a visit to a certain Russian cartoon villain. I’m not sure if he could have designed a bigger slap in the face to our allies if he tried (of course it’s possible he was trying). Currently, NATO is presenting a united front against Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. If the United States abandons its allies, there will be no impediment to Vladimir Putin picking off and absorbing the countries of Eastern Europe one by one. You may be asking, why should I care? The answer is war. You should really care about war in Europe.
Russia has been on the march for 10 years, and shows no sign of stopping
Vladimir Putin has a Napoleon complex, and he’s really cranky about his Soviet Empire being taken away. The Baltic states, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, used to be part of the Soviet Union. Once they gained independence, they decided democracy was their jam, and they joined both the EU and NATO. Dear old Vlad isn’t happy about this, and they aren’t the only countries displeasing him. He has already begun an effort to re-take Ukraine and Belarus. He invaded Georgia, another former Soviet state. He has also made aggressive moves toward Poland, by putting banned missiles on their border (there is a tiny slice of Russia between Poland and Lithuania, that used to be part of Germany before it started the last European war). In short, Putin has provided all kinds of evidence that he will stroll into other countries and co-opt them if he doesn’t think he’ll face significant resistance. And let’s face it, poor Poland has been invaded enough.
Why is Europe vulnerable if the US abandons NATO?
The thing about aggressor nations is, they only respond to the threat of overwhelming force. In a cost benefit analysis, no country is going to conclude that a war to expand territory is worth it if there is little likelihood of success or if that war will be too costly in blood and treasure. This is why mutually assured destruction was such an effective policy during the Cold War. The Soviet Union and the United States maintained first strike capability, and had a policy of launching all of their nukes should the other country upset the territorial status quo. No country is going to upset the status quo if it means turning their nation into a nuclear wasteland. American military power has been protecting Europe since 1945; without it, they are all vulnerable. We used to keep an arsenal of tanks in Germany, but they have mostly been removed, and Putin’s conventional capabilities outmatch NATO’s. Now, you can argue that the European powers should have replaced those conventional weapons, but they didn’t, and what they “should” have done will be irrelevant if Russian tanks roll into Latvia. So the reality is, the only thing left protecting NATO allies from Russian aggression is the American nuclear umbrella (Britain and France also have nuclear weapons, but they probably don’t have enough to deter Russia). That deterrent is dependent on a US President’s willingness to use it. President Obama already eroded the world’s confidence that the US President would use nuclear weapons by suggesting the United States adopt a no first use policy. Now, given Trump’s coziness with Russia, what would Putin have to fear?
Despite its vulnerability, NATO and the EU can’t just let their members get invaded
Pretty much all countries between the Ukrainian/Belarussian/Russian border are EU and/or NATO members who used to be part of the Soviet Union or client states of the Soviet Union. This includes Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. That’s a huge chunk of the EU, and the military powers of Europe, Britain, France, and Germany, can’t just let Putin dismember the second largest economic trading bloc in the world. Nor can they desert their allies (they are not, ahem, the NATO member with a history of that moral flaw). The EU/NATO may be outgunned by Russia, but it still has three of the ten most powerful militaries in the world, in France, Britain, and Germany, and it will not let aggression against member states go unanswered. Trump’s clear intention to elevate a Russian alliance and devalue NATO is not only stupid and destructive, it is also a moral failure. Even the smaller countries of Europe, like Poland, have assisted America’s missions in Afghanistan and, in the case of Poland and Britain, even Iraq. They’ve bled for us, how dare we refuse to bleed for them? Most importantly, Trump’s policies could spell the end of the international institutions that have prevented the carnage of war in Europe for over 70 years.
The end of Churchill’s vision for European (and world) peace
Winston Churchill is the father of the post-WWII consensus that developing international alliance and institutions can prevent war. Along with Franklin Roosevelt, he wrote the Atlantic charter, the founding document of the United Nations, outlining the guiding principles for a future without war. The above link goes to a NATO page because the Atlantic Charter is also considered a founding document of NATO, which was created to protect democracies from authoritarianism. Churchill’s legacy also includes the EU itself (his “United States of Europe”) and the European Convention on Human Rights, which is Europe’s equivalent to the US Bill of Rights. He realized that if economic integration, military alliance, and a common commitment to the same human rights bound the countries of Europe together, they would stop murdering each other every 20-30 years. Lord knows the UN, EU, and NATO have their flaws, but they have achieved one of their architects’ central objectives – staving off war in Europe.
Churchill, who has half American, also believed in the greatness and goodness of the United States, and in its role in preventing another World War. The US has certainly fallen down on the job of ensuring peace for the entire world – it has unquestionably caused its share of wars. However, it has played its part in ensuring that the wealthiest, most powerful militaries in the world have not dragged it into a technologically advanced orgy of destruction. Churchill’s vision has worked, and there is no earthly reason it won’t continue to do so. So when you ask yourself why it’s such a bad idea to have a re-set with Russia and a little distance from NATO, you’re really asking yourself this: whom do I trust with the fate of the world, Winston Churchill or Donald Trump?