The United States is lucky to have strong friends and partners in Europe. And now’s not the time to talk about weakening this alliance of democracies.
- By James StavridisJames Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
In a recent meeting with the editorial board of the Washington Post, Donald Trump finally found international consensus and support on a powerful and creative set of key foreign-policy issues, placing him squarely on record with three well-known international activist leaders.
Unfortunately, the global leaders with whom he is in nearly impeccable agreement are Vladimir Putin, Russia’s dictatorial president; Kim Jong Un, the petulant authoritarian leader of North Korea; and Xi Jinping, China’s expansionist-minded president.
Consider just a few of Trump’s gems. On America’s allies in Europe: “NATO is costing us a fortune.” On support for democratic South Korea: “We’re constantly, you know, sending our ships, sending our planes, doing our war games.” And on battling the Islamic State: “I would find it very, very hard to send that many troops to take care of it.” Yikes.
It now seems clear that the four of them taken together share a vision of the 21st century that the best course for the world would be a disengagement of the United States from its traditional structure of alliances and a retrenchment from forward military deployments.
By aligning himself with Russia, North Korea, and China on the need to get the United States out of the world and our military back to the piers and barracks where he evidently thinks it belongs, Trump would sow the seeds of global instability and cede significant portions of the world to regional domination. Notably, the South China Sea would be highly at risk of Chinese hegemony, and Eastern Europe would be under significant Russian influence. The ripple effects to other parts of the world would follow, and the already unstable Korean Peninsula would take another step toward open war. All of this would undermine the global economy and diminish U.S. power.
In this regard, the key question posed by Trump was, “Why are we always the one that’s leading, potentially the third world war, OK, with Russia?” It was somewhat unclear how the United States leading would create the potential for World War III, but you get the idea. Not only is Trump troubled by America’s internationalism, but he seems congenitally opposed to the very bedrock principle of that idea: the steadfastness of U.S. global leadership.
“I always say we have to be unpredictable. We’re totally predictable. And predictable is bad,” said Trump.
The key problem, in Trump’s eyes, seems to be financial: “NATO is costing us a fortune, and, yes, we’re protecting Europe, but we’re spending a lot of money.” He also implied that the United States either ought to get out of South Korea or charge them (by the hour?) for its deployments: “South Korea is very rich. Great industrial country. And yet we’re not reimbursed fairly for what we do.”
We’ve seen that movie before. After the apocalyptic events of World War I in Europe, the United States departed the continent, declined to join the nascent global organizational structure offered by the League of Nations, and essentially withdrew from the world, judging it to be complicated, expensive, and unnecessary to maintain a policy of wider engagement. The result was the rise of fascism in Europe, the violent expansion of Imperial Japan, and World War II.
While it is always easy to rail against the cost of our military, we get good value for the money. As much as we complain about the cost of an alliance system and forward military deployments, they are a necessity if we are to ensure an open global commons, freedom of the high seas, and security around the world, especially in the nations of our allies and friends. Particularly in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels on Tuesday, now is the time to stand with Europe and NATO, not talk about disengaging.
The United States is not, nor should it be, the world’s police. But it is in our fundamental self-interest to engage, operate, and lead. Let’s take Europe and NATO as examples.
NATO matters deeply to the United States for five key reasons. First and most importantly, it is the best and most consistent pool of partners the United States has in the world. Our NATO partners share our values — liberty, democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, and the other enduring elements of our national character. These fundamental values of America came from Europe via the Enlightenment, and Washington must continue to stand by them.
Second, despite Trump’s comments, Europeans actually spend a great deal of money on defense. While they are indeed spending less than the stated NATO target goal of 2 percent of GDP, it is important to remember that Europeans spend $300 billion per year on defense. Taken collectively, it is the second-largest defense budget in the world, second only to America’s nearly $600 billion and more than Russia and China combined.
Third, Europe’s geopolitical position allows U.S. forces to protect American interests and project power in unstable regions, from the Sahel to the Levant. The NATO bases in Europe are not dusty bastions of the Cold War — they are the forward-operating stations of the 21st century.
Fourth, the U.S. economy is deeply intertwined with Europe. The largest trading relationship in the world flows across the North Atlantic, comprising half of the world’s GDP and nearly one-third of global trade annually. Trump’s stated policy of disengagement from Europe and NATO would embolden Putin, deeply discourage and undermine friends in Europe, and create an atmosphere of uncertainty and doubt.
Fifth, NATO and America’s European allies represent a highly capable cyber- and intelligence capability that remains extremely critical. Jettisoning our defense relationships would weaken the United States at a time when such interaction is necessary to deal with global violent extremism. The most recent attacks in Brussels, California, and Paris show that we are linked together in the fight against terrorism.
The same general arguments pertain in Asia, where our alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, and others help us to ensure global stability and empower the global economy. Trump thinks that the United States should walk away from a leadership role in NATO and disengage from forward military operations. That is naive and dangerous. It will only lead to happiness in Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang — and a bitter harvest for the United States.
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