Analysis & Opinions - The New York Times

What America Gets Out of NATO

| July 11, 2018

Donald Trump prepared for this week’s NATO summit by doing what no president had done before — making a case that the alliance is a bad deal for the American people. Last week in Great Falls, Mont., he said that he had told Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, “I don’t know how much protection we get by protecting you.” Mr. Trump has been even tougher on the European Union, branding it “as bad as Nafta” and adding, “Sometimes our worst enemies are our so-called friends.”

I have visited four European countries during the last two weeks, and it has been shocking to see how far from grace the United States has fallen in the eyes of its allies. European leaders point to Mr. Trump’s support for anti-democratic populists in Hungary, Poland and Italy. They view his recent Twitter attack on Ms. Merkel as a transparent attempt to push her from office.

Many fear he may now remove American sanctions against Moscow over its occupation of Crimea after his meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Finland next week. Confidence in Mr. Trump has plummeted so much that the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, recently grouped “Donald Trump’s egotistic policy of America First” along with Russia and China as global concerns.

None of this, of course, is likely to disturb Mr. Trump, who remains steadfast in his belief that whatever benefits the United States gained from the trans-Atlantic alliance in the past, the country no longer profits. But he’s wrong — there are compelling reasons that NATO in particular will be a distinct advantage for America’s security far into the future.

First, NATO’s formidable conventional and nuclear forces are the most effective way to protect North America and Europe — the heart of the democratic world — from attack. Threats to our collective security have not vanished in the 21st century. Mr. Putin remains a determined adversary preying on Eastern Europe and American elections. NATO is a force multiplier: The United States has allies who will stand by us, while Russia has none.

And while it’s true that most of America’s NATO allies need to increase their defense spending under the treaty, they’re not freeloaders: The United States has relied on NATO allies to strike back against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in the Middle East. European troops have replaced American soldiers in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and contribute the large majority in Kosovo.

Our NATO allies are also getting better about contributing their fair share. They have increased their defense spending by a total of more than $87 billion since Mr. Putin annexed Crimea in 2014. Fourteen more allies will reach NATO’s military spending target — 2 percent of gross domestic product — by 2024. Mr. Trump would be smart to claim credit for this at this week’s summit.

A second reason for maintaining the trans-Atlantic alliance is America’s economic future. The European Union is our country’s largest trade partner, and its largest investor. The United States and the European Union are the world’s two largest economies, and can steer global trade to their advantage if they stick together. More than four million Americans work for European companies in the United States. Forty-five of the 50 states export more to Europe than to China.

Mr. Trump is right that the two sides are also economic competitors, and trade disputes are inevitable. His predecessors kept this tension in balance lest there be damaging consequences for American businesses, workers and farmers — a good reminder for Mr. Trump, whose ill-conceived trade war with Canada and Europe risks harming the American economy.

Third, future American leaders will find Europe is our most capable and willing partner in tackling the biggest threats to global security: climate change; drugand cybercrime cartels; terrorism; pandemics and mass migration from Africa and the Middle East. And America’s NATO allies will continue to be indispensable in safeguarding democracy and freedom, under assault by Russia and China.

Mr. Trump’s campaign to undermine the European Union and diminish America’s leadership in NATO serves none of these interests. He seems driven by resentment about European trade surpluses and low defense budgets, issues that blind him to all the other benefits Americans derive from our alliance with Europe and Canada.

Mr. Trump may believe his blistering attacks on Europe’s trade policies and defense budgets are a good negotiating tactic before the summit. But in fact they have already done enormous damage. While he cannot outright kill NATO — the American public and Congress support it too strongly — he has eroded significant levels of trust and good will. As it became clear during my recent visits across Europe, a dangerous breach has opened in the trans-Atlantic alliance — by far the worst in seven decades.

Mr. Trump wants Americans to believe that their allies are simply taking advantage of them. On Sept. 11, 2001, I witnessed a far different reality as American ambassador to NATO. Canada and the European allies volunteered within hours of the attacks to invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which compels all members to respond to an attack on any single member, for the first time in history. They came to our defense when we most needed them. They sent troops to fight with us in Afghanistan. They are still there with us 17 years later.

Are we now going to throw off that mutual protection, and go it alone in a dangerous 21st-century world? That would be a historic mistake. But that is where we may find ourselves if Mr. Trump’s anti-Europe vendetta continues.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burns, Nicholas.“What America Gets Out of NATO.” The New York Times, July 11, 2018.