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When it comes to NATO, Trump has it half right

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News
President Trump and other leaders pose for a photo at the start of the NATO summit in Brussels, July 11, 2018. (Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters)

President Trump swept into Brussels this week like some rich, nutty uncle who had to be invited to the wedding, despite flaming all his relatives on the family Facebook page, because he’s paying for the caterer and the band.  

Even before the food came out, Trump again blasted America’s staunchest allies as a bunch of worthless sponges and accused Germany of being under Russian control. That’s quite a toast.

How reviled is Trump in Europe? Put it this way: When you’re searching the crowd for someone to sit with and are super-relieved to see the Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan waving you over, you’ve got some work to do.

Just because you’re boorish, though, doesn’t mean you’re completely wrong. Heckle me for saying so, but I happen to think Trump has a serious point when it comes to modernizing the decades-old arrangement between the United States and its European allies. And I’m willing to grant that sometimes diplomacy requires a less-than-diplomatic approach.

The question is to what end. Because if you’re going to make the case that America is wasting too much money to defend foreign borders, then it seems to me you also ought to have a pretty good argument for how reversing that policy can help us here at home.

To be clear, nobody sane should be talking about disbanding NATO. The threat of Russian expansionism, as ever, remains, and America’s interest in the security of Europe is vital still. But the balance of responsibility for that security could probably stand to be updated.

For those of you too young to remember Boris Yeltsin standing on the tank (he was known to be a drinker, but this was a different kind of disorderly conduct), the mutual defense pact among free countries in Europe and North America goes back almost 70 years, to the dawn of the Cold War, when our European allies were still rising slowly from the dust of the Second World War.

For several decades afterward, the United States bore the necessary burden, to use President Kennedy’s phrase, of defending Europe — and much of the world — from Soviet aggression.

You’ve heard it said, no doubt, that America won the Cold War. Except that two things about that statement are untrue, or at least inexact; the Cold War wasn’t really cold, and we didn’t win anything so much as outlast the other guy.

The mission led us into an unprecedented arms race and protracted wars in far-flung proxy states, all of which came at astounding cost in both life and money. While we spent the Soviets into eventual collapse, we also neglected our own great cities and aging infrastructure. We racked up unprecedented debt. We failed to keep pace with basic needs like health care.

And while the United States and the Soviets were staggering around the ring and trading blows, like the last scene of a Rocky movie, Europeans were busy rebuilding.

Maybe you’ve heard American liberals wax admiring about all the great social programs in socialist Europe, and the gleaming new airports and urban rail lines. Well, OK, but you know what those countries weren’t doing for the last half century? Building missiles and deploying fleets all over the world. Turns out that stuff can get kind of pricey.

When the Cold War finally played itself out in the early 1990s, we heard a lot about the so-called peace dividend we were supposed to reap. We’re still waiting.

Trump is hardly the first president, or the second or third, to make the point that it’s past time for an economically robust Europe to start footing the bill for its own defense. With a defense budget of more than $600 billion annually (or about 16 percent of the federal budget), the United States spends more than twice as much as the other NATO countries combined (although it should be noted that most of our spending isn’t directly related to Europe).

In a valedictory address in 2011, no less a cool-headed presence than Robert Gates, who had served as defense secretary in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, apprised the Europeans of what he said was a “blunt reality” — that Americans were losing their will to spend money defending nations that were “apparently unwilling” to be “serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

In response to all this nudging, NATO countries pledged to spend at least 2 percent of their national incomes on defense by 2024. (The United States, by the way, spends north of 3.5 percent.)

The self-described dealmaker president says he isn’t satisfied with that progress, and I’m not sure he should be. But I don’t hear him making a compelling argument — or any argument at all, really — for how any of the money we spend in Europe might be used to finally rebuild at home.

Because if you’re serious about making America great again, after decades lost to global struggle, you’d have to start with an investment in infrastructure, right?

And I don’t mean the kind of “plan” Trump proposed and then abandoned a few months ago, which your average fourth grader could have written on the bus home. I’m talking about an aggressive agenda to create transportation and internet hubs, not to mention up-to-date schools.

And if you’re really looking to get America back on the path to long-term prosperity, then it won’t be nearly enough to recoup a small chunk of defense spending. You’d need to start paying down the federal debt that you and the Republican Congress just blew up like a Fifth Avenue parade float by passing another round of tax cuts.

And that means you also need a real plan to reform entitlement spending, which is already taking up more than half the federal budget and is certain to grow. If you’ve got the guts to stare down Angela Merkel, then surely you have what it takes to tell the wealthiest Americans that we have to tax them more and give them less.

If you have it in mind to take on all of that, then an ultimatum to our NATO partners makes perfect sense to me. Rebalance our long-standing commitments abroad, so we can finally start to renew the ones we’ve neglected at home — that’s a governing rationale I can totally get behind.

But absent that kind of modern domestic agenda, Trump’s banging the drum in Brussels this week looks like what I suspect it really is, when you get down to it: old-fashioned, head-in-the-sand isolationism.

Trump’s gambit isn’t really part of a plan to pursue the unfinished work of the Cold War. It’s a wish to abdicate the perch of global leadership, on the tragically misguided belief that if you withdraw from the world and close yourself off behind walls and tariffs, then you’ll wake up one day and it’ll be the 1950s again.

Trump has good reason to question the status quo in Europe, but he’s wrong if he thinks he can magically achieve more at home simply by retreating abroad.

Even your nutty uncle gets it half-right some of the time.

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