Trump is an idiot but he’s right about NATO. I think that’s what’s behind Robert Kagan’s lament in the Washington Post:
It’s little secret that President Barack Obama had no great interest in Europe. Obama, like Trump, spoke of allied “free riders,” and his “pivot” to Asia was widely regarded by Europeans as a pivot away from them. Obama rattled Eastern Europe in his early years by canceling planned missile-defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic as an inducement to Vladimir Putin to embrace a “reset” of relations. In his later years he rattled Western Europe when he did not enforce his famous “red lines” in Syria. Both actions raised doubts about American reliability, and the Obama administration’s refusal to take action in Syria to stem the flow of refugees contributed heavily to the present strain.
Obama was only doing what he thought the American people wanted. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the 2008 financial crisis, left Americans disenchanted with global involvement and receptive to arguments that the alliances and institutions they supported for all those years no longer served their interests. The Obama administration tried to pare back the American role without abandoning the liberal world order, hoping it was more self-sustaining than it turned out to be. But the path was open to a politician willing to exploit Americans’ disenchantment, which is precisely what Trump did in 2016.
NATO has never been a self-operating machine that simply chugs ahead so long as it is left alone. Like the liberal world order of which it is the core, it requires constant tending, above all by the United States. And because it is a voluntary alliance of democratic peoples, it survives on a foundation of public support. That foundation has been cracking in recent years. This week was an opportunity to shore it up. Instead, Trump took a sledgehammer to it.
As I’ve said before NATO is a military alliance. Without force readiness the other members of the alliance are clients not allies. We have had ample demonstrations, first in Libya and then in Syria, that the force readiness of even the best-prepared of our NATO allies, France and the United Kingdom, is inadequate. And Germany’s force readiness would be laughable if it weren’t so despicable.
The French are doing the best to bring their forces up to snuff of any in the alliance but they have the shortest distance to travel. Don’t perseverate on the 2%. That goal isn’t a tithe or dues; it’s an estimate of what it takes to maintain force readiness. It’s like deferred maintenance. If you delay long enough what was a small problem becomes a big one. That little crack that might have taken $1,000 to take care of now will require $10,000 you don’t have to fix. That’s the situation that Germany, Italy, and maybe even the UK are in.
Maybe the alliance is worth maintaining. Maybe it isn’t. A military alliance is a way of mitigating risks. Risks come in multiple varieties. There are the risks that come from outside forces and events, e.g. Russia could attack Estonia. There are also the risks that come from your own bad behavior. Those are called “moral hazard” and we’re guilty of it, too. IMO participating in the overthrow of the Libyan government was an example of bad U. S. behavior that resulted from moral hazard. But Germany and Italy skimping on their military spending are examples, too.
Expanding NATO increased the risks to which we were exposed and didn’t increase the strength of the alliance one whit. Allies that aren’t prepared to fight increase our risks, too. We need to do a risk analysis. The risk of Russian attack isn’t what it was 40 years ago and we’re exposed to more risk from both our own and our allies’ misbehavior. Are the risks still worth the benefits?
In closing I’ll only point out one thing. Mr. Kagan is a liberal interventionist, some would say neoconservative, of the stripe that never met a war they didn’t like. If he doesn’t like what’s happening, I can’t help but feel that we’re doing something right.