If Donald Trump is elected US president it will spell the end of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. At least, that’s how a phalanx of US foreign policy pundits and establishment figures see it. Trump once again caused uproar recently with comments that were viewed as undermining a «cornerstone» of US foreign policy since the Second World War.
Ahead of accepting official nomination as the Republican party presidential candidate, the billionaire property magnate told the New York Times in an interview that, if elected, he would not automatically deploy American military forces to defend another member of NATO if it were attacked.
As the NYT noted Trump’s conditionality regarding NATO was the first time any senior American politician has uttered such a radical change in policy. It overturns «American cornerstone policy of the past 70 years».
Trump was asked whether he would defend Eastern European countries if they were attacked by Russia.
(Hypothetical, propagandistic nonsense, but let’s bear with the argument for the underlying logic that it exposes.)
Trump did not give the customary automatic, unconditional «yes» response. Rather, he said he would have to first review whether these countries had fulfilled their «obligations to us». If they had, then, he said, US forces would defend. If they hadn’t lived up to past financial commitments to NATO, then the inference was that a would-be President Trump would not order troops to defend.
The reaction to Trump’s comments was explosive. NATO’s civilian chief, Jens Stoltenberg, was evidently perplexed by Trump’s equivocal attitude. «Solidarity among allies is a key value for NATO», said the former Norwegian prime minister. «This is good for European security and good for US security. We defend one another».
Stoltenberg was just one of the many pro-NATO figures on both sides of the Atlantic who stampeded to slam Trump for his comments.
The rightwing American Enterprise Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations, and senior foreign policy makers within the Republican and Democrat parties all unanimously berated Trump over his views on NATO. Estonian and Latvian political leaders also expressed deep anxiety on what they saw as a withdrawal by the US from Europe’s security.
Reuters reported a joint letter from a US bi-partisan group of «national security» experts who condemned Trump’s «inflammatory remarks» for not representing the «core interests» of the United States.
«The strength of our alliances is at the core of those interests», said the group. «The United States must uphold the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s commitments to all of our allies, including Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania».
Reuters also quoted a former US ambassador to the alliance as saying that Trump’s policy means: «It’s the end of NATO».
Robert Hunter, who was NATO envoy under President Bill Clinton, added: «The essence of NATO, more than any other single factor, is the commitment of the United States of America to the security of the other 27 members».
The Los Angeles Times quoted former NATO supreme commander, US General Wesley Clark, as saying that Trump’s stance «undercuts NATO’s deterrence in Europe». Clark said that the comments showed that Trump has a fundamental misunderstanding of how the alliance works. «It will mean the end of the European Union and the collapse of the US’s largest trading partner».
The former NATO military chief also made the snide comment that Russian leader Vladimir Putin would be «happy» with Trump’s shift in defense policy. As did Hillary Clinton’s senior policy advisor, Jake Sullivan, who made the inane assertion that «Putin would be rooting for Trump» to win the November presidential election.
It is not the first time that Donald Trump has shown an irreverent disregard for NATO and other military partnerships which have been the hallmark of US foreign policy since World War Two. Previously, during the Republican primaries in March, the presidential contender told the Washington Post he would withdraw US troops from Japan, South Korea and the Middle East if regional allies did not shoulder more of the defense burden in terms of boosting financial contributions.
Trump says that his view of drawing down overseas American military forces is part of his «America First» policy. He told the New York Times this policy means: «We are going to take care of this country first before we worry about everyone else in the world».
In a certain sense, Trump’s worldview is laudable. Given the immense challenges for fixing the US economy, impoverished communities, post-industrial unemployment and crumbling infrastructure, of course it does not make sense for the US to maintain over 1,000 military bases overseas in over 100 countries.
And, as Trump has pointed out, it is the US that pays the lion’s share of the budget for its military partnerships. In the 28-member NATO alliance, the US pays 70-75 per cent of the entire budget.
But here is where Trump gets it fundamentally wrong. His premise of the United States functioning as a benevolent protector is misplaced. If that were the case then, yes, Trump’s point about the arrangement being «unfair» would be valid.
However, NATO and the US’s other military umbrellas in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, are not motivated primarily about maintaining security and peace. These military pacts are all about providing the US with a political, legal and moral rationale for intervening its forces in key geopolitical regions. The massive expenditure by the US on military alliances is really all about maintaining Washington’s hegemony over allies and perceived enemies alike. The reality is that America’s «defense» pacts are more a source of relentless tensions and conflicts. Europe and the South China Sea are testimony to that if we disabuse the notional pretensions otherwise.
In all the heated reaction to Trump’s latest comments on NATO the over-riding assumption is that the United States is a force for good, law and order and peace.
Under the headline «Trump NATO plan would be sharp break with decades-long US policy», this Reuters reportage belies the false indoctrination of what US and NATO’s purpose is actually about. It reports: «Republican foreign policy veterans and outside experts warned that the suggestion by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump that he might abandon NATO’s pledge to automatically defend all alliance members could destroy an organization that has helped keep the peace for 66 years and could invite Russian aggression».
Really? Maintaining peace for 66 years? Not if you live in former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or Ukraine and Syria where NATO powers have been covertly orchestrating and sponsoring conflicts.
Also note the unquestioned insinuation by Reuters that without NATO that would «invite Russian aggression».
If we return to the original question posed by the New York Times, which sparked the flurry of pro-NATO reaction, the newspaper put it to Trump like this:
«Asked about Russia’s threatening activities, which have unnerved the small Baltic States that are among the more recent entrants into NATO, Mr Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing if those nations have fulfilled their obligations to us».
The NY Times, like so many NATO advocates who went apoplectic over Trump, is constructing its argument on an entirely false and illusory premise of «Russia’s threatening activities».
Unfortunately, it seems, Trump bought into this false premise by answering the question, even though his conditional answer has set off a firestorm among NATO and Western foreign policy establishments. Can you imagine the reaction if he had, instead, rebutted the false assertion about there even being Russian aggression?
But this fabrication of «Russian threat» is an essential part of the wider fabrication about what the US-led NATO alliance is really functioning for. It is not about defending «the free world» from Russian or Soviet «aggression», or, for that matter, from Iranian, Chinese, North Korean, or Islamic terrorist threats. In short, NATO and US military «protection» has got nothing to do with defense and peace. It is about protecting American corporate profits and hegemony.
Ever since its inception in 1949 by the US under President Truman, NATO is a construct that serves to project American presence and power around the world, as well as propping up its taxpayer-subsidized military-industrial complex. The most geopolitically vital theatre is Europe, where the European nations must be kept divided from any form of normal political and economic relations with Russia. If that were to happen, American hegemonic power, as we know it, is over. That’s what the alarmism among the NATO advocates over Trump is really about.
Trump’s declared aim of withdrawing US forces from overseas and of cutting down NATO is admirable, even if his reasoning is faulty and imbued with false notions of American benevolence.
If he were to implement such policies, then indeed the American facade of NATO might well collapse. Which would be an immeasurably good thing for restoring peaceful international relations, especially with regard to Europe and Russia, despite what the reactionary, rightwing Russophobic European states might say.
But here’s the thing. Trump does not seem to understand how deeply important NATO or US militarism elsewhere around the globe are to American hegemony under its corporate capitalist system. If and when he does actually try to implement his policy, he will encounter formidable forces that he probably isn’t aware of yet.
Without a massive popular mobilization, Trump will not be allowed to implement such a challenge to the foundational premise of modern American power. The US military-industrial-intelligence complex will see to that.
The last American president who tried to rein in the corporate power of US militarism was John F Kennedy. He was assassinated on November 22, 1963, in broad daylight by the CIA-Pentagon and their contract killers. And for 53 years, the entire American media and law enforcement establishments have brazenly covered up that shocking truth in the fashion of a «ministry of truth».
Potentially, Trump’s stance on NATO is damaging to the military alliance, and could even precipitate a terminal decline. That is why the reaction to his comments has been so fierce, and is also why he won’t be allowed to get away with such a policy if he is elected.
This is not mean, however, to sound defeatist. Of course, US militarism and its war-mongering imperialist foreign policy could be overturned. American hegemony is not divinely ordained. But such a radical, fundamental change in direction will require a massive popular movement among ordinary Americans. It will not be achieved on the basis of one fiery politician’s words.