President-elect Donald Trump has shocked America’s European allies yet again. In a joint interview with the Times of London and German publication Bild, he denigrated NATO as “obsolete” and added, “A lot of these countries aren’t paying what they’re supposed to be paying, which I think is very unfair to the United States.” His proviso that “NATO is very important to me” was not enough to calm nerves in Europe. “Trump’s attitudes have raised alarm bells across Europe,” The Washington Post reported after German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded to Trump’s remarks by curtly saying, “We Europeans have our destiny in our own hands.” Russia, meanwhile, welcomed Trump’s remarks. “NATO is indeed a vestige [of the past] and we agree with that,” said Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman.
It’s tempting to see the rift between the U.S. and its European allies as an unprecedented shift in foreign policy. After all, NATO is a venerable institution that has endured 68 years with bipartisan support. Even Trump’s pick for secretary of defense, retired General James Mattis, strenuously disagrees with him on NATO and on the wisdom of seeking friendlier ties with Russia. “I think right now,” he said during his confirmation hearing last week, “the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with in Mr. Putin and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance and we take the integrated steps—diplomatic, economic, military and the alliance steps, working with our allies—to defend ourselves where we must.”
Yet beneath that façade of bipartisan accord, there has always been a powerful strain of isolationism and unilateralism within the Republican Party. If Trump does try to revolutionize U.S. foreign policy, he won’t have to do it alone; he can summon and bolster that minority faction in his own party that has always seen NATO as both a waste of money and an unnecessary constraint on America’s freedom of action—or inaction, as the case may be—abroad.
When President Harry Truman’s push for the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, he was met with opposition by Ohio Senator Robert Taft, leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. A notorious penny-pincher, Taft argued that NATO would soon “cost more each year than the housing, education, and limited health plans combined,” and he presciently warned that the alliance would lead to a costly arms race. “We cannot build up the armaments of Western Europe without stimulating the Russians to increase still further their development of war forces,” Taft said. He feared that such an escalated Cold War would lead to “bankruptcy and the surrender of all liberty.”
When Taft lost the Republican nomination to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, it seemed that this strain of unilateralism and isolationism had suffered a permanent defeat. But it didn’t die; it became a recessive gene within the GOP, revealing itself now and again. Several Republican presidents have shown a Taft-like willingness to sideline allies in pursuit of an “America First” policy, notably Richard Nixon’s unilateral decision in 1971 to delink American currency from the gold standard and to impose a 10 percent tariff on all imports, creating the famous “Nixon Shock” in Europe and Asia. In its “war on drugs,” the administration also forced allies to accept policies by fiat. When the Reagan administration took office in 1981, it inherited Nixon’s tendency to unilateral action on key issues, trying to impose its will on European allies on controversial issues like American attempts to impose an embargo on a pipeline bringing natural gas from the Soviet Union to Europe, and American support for anticommunist guerrillas in South Africa (both policies that Europeans as a whole disapproved of).
As the Reagan administration gained a reputation for cowboy diplomacy, conservative intellectuals started making the case that Europe was more of a hindrance than a help to the U.S. A new cohort of neoconservative thinkers began making the case that America’s European allies weren’t doing enough heavy lifting against the Soviets. “Dependency corrupts and absolute dependency corrupts absolutely,” Irving Kristol argued in the New York Times Magazine in 1983. “To the degree that Europe has been dependent upon the United States, the European will has been corrupted and European political vitality has diminished.” The Hoover Institute’s Melvyn Krauss argued in his 1986 book How NATO Weakens the West that “Europe’s detente-as-defense strategy has made U.S. membership in NATO inconsistent with containment strategies” and “the military weakness NATO has imposed on the Europeans...is in neither Europe’s long-term interest nor that of the United States.” (Krauss, prefiguring Trump, also wanted to the United States to cut its Asian alliances.)
These were fringe ideas among Republicans in the 1980s and ’90s. The most notable politician to take them up was third-party maverick Ross Perot. But there has been an upsurge of anti-interventionist sentiment in the Republican Party since the Iraq War turned sour. Even before Trump won the GOP nomination, politicians like Ron Paul and his son Rand Paul gained devoted followings by challenging America’s system of global alliances. The Pauls represent the libertarian wing of the party, but their aversion to interventionism was echoed in recent years by Republicans like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, in opposition to American involvement in Libya or funding for the United Nations and the IMF. Although this strand of the GOP might more accurately be called hard-right nationalism, on many issues its instincts are similar to isolationism.
A Pew Research poll last year found that 75 percent of Republicans believe NATO is good for the U.S., with only 18 percent believing the opposite. Among Trump supporters those numbers fell to 64 and 30 percent, respectively, but that’s still a two-to-one margin. Any radical changes to NATO would be a tough sell to Republicans, let alone the nation at large. Then again, being at odds with public opinion hasn’t stopped Trump before. The smart play—not that I’m advocating Trump’s position—would be to cast his downgrading of NATO in the language of Taft, Kristol, and Krauss: To say it’s a costly burden that will ensnare America in conflicts that are well outside its national interest.
Trump’s foreign policy vision rests on the fallacy that all transactions are zero-sum, with an obvious winner and an obvious loser. It’s unlikely that he’ll be able to pull America out of NATO, which is a treaty obligation. But as commander-in-chief, he can certainly diminish it by treating it as a lesser priority. The likely result would be that Germany, as Merkel’s remarks hinted, will assume leadership in Europe. The same process could play itself out in Africa, with South Africa, and in Asia, with South Korea and Japan. We would see a more fragmented world, one where regional autarky replaces an international order. Nations would be bound by local spheres of influence with little regard for global co-operation or trade. Such a world would be far more dangerous than the one we have, with a much greater chance of regional wars.
It’s up to Democrats and any remaining Never-Trump Republicans to take a stand against this Darwinian approach to international relations. The liberal order that both parties worked together to create after World War II was flawed, but it brought an unprecedented level of peace and prosperity to the world. While Taft was right that NATO would be a costly commitment, the price has been far lower than the damage wrought by two world wars in Europe in the first half of the last century. One of the most urgent tasks in the Trump era is to reassert the value of such internationalism, without which the world might well revert to that bloody era.