President Donald Trump’s reported disclosure of classified information about the Islamic State to Russian diplomats is, like many of his reckless acts, both shocking and entirely unsurprising. In fact, it was predicted even before Trump became president. In mid-January, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, relying on the reporting of investigative reporter Ronen Bergman, reported that “Israeli intelligence officials are concerned that the exposure of classified information to their American counterparts in the Trump administration could lead to their being leaked to Russia.” Those concerns were justified. The information that Trump let slip “was provided by Israel, according to a current and a former American official familiar with how the United States obtained the information,” The New York Times reported on Tuesday.
Trump’s actions will have a profound impact on America’s relations with all of its allies, who will wonder where the United States can be trusted to keep a secret.
This news couldn’t come at a worse time for Trump, who’s about to embark on his first foreign trip as president, one that will include a NATO meeting in Brussels. Trump, shortly before taking office, famously raised doubts about America’s commitment to the venerable alliance by calling it “obsolete.” Under pressure from the Republican foreign policy establishment, Trump walked back his position in April: “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete.”
But perhaps this reversal was premature. Through sheer incompetence, narcissism, and stupidity, Trump may well achieve his original goal of an “America First” foreign policy better than if he had pursued it in a more calculated fashion. By making America an unreliable ally, he is calling into question the value of NATO—and providing Europe with an opportunity to reinvent its own foreign policy.
Trump’s original doubts about North Atlantic Treaty Organization deserved more serious inquiry than it received from the panicked foreign policy establishment. When the alliance was created, in 1949, the world was very different than today. Europe was still shattered by the Second World War, with its industrial capacity a smoking ruin. The threat of Soviet expansion in Europe was real. Countries like Italy and France had major communist parties, which enjoyed enormous prestige for their role in fighting fascism.
Created to fend off the Soviets, NATO has had a strange afterlife since 1991, when the USSR dissolved. It’s been an alliance system in search of a mission. It expanded to the east, bringing in former members of the Soviet Union’s alliance, the Warsaw Pact. But this has created more problems than it has solved, since each move closer to Russia’s borders has made war both more likely and also more dubious, with NATO members in Western Europe wondering if they want to fight wars over disputed borders far to the east. A putatively defensive alliance has become a powder-keg.
The other major way NATO has justified itself is by assisting American missions in the Middle East and South Asia. NATO has been active militarily in Afghanistan, trained Iraqi troops, and provided earthquake relief in Pakistan. Here again, the mission creep is troubling. If these activities are needed, wouldn’t it be better to have an alliance system that includes countries from the Middle East and South Asia taking the lead in such acts? All but one NATO member nation is predominately Christian, which feeds the critique that the alliance system is a tool of a new Western imperialism, providing a thin cover of multilateralism for American power projection.
Nor is there any clarity about why NATO countries are engaged in such tasks. Are they in Iraq because it is in their national interests to do so? Or is this a cheap way to stay in the good America’s side, for continued U.S. protection against Russia?
The preparations for the Brussels meeting make clear that NATO has become a sclerotic, top-heavy organization with no clear reason to exist. A report in Foreign Policy on how NATO is trying to adapt to Trump is damning not just for the president, but for the doddering alliance system:
“It’s kind of ridiculous how they are preparing to deal with Trump,” said one source briefed extensively on the meeting’s preparations. “It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child — someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re freaking out.”
Still, despite these changes, experts are wary of how Trump will react to NATO meetings and their long-winded, diplomatic back-and-forth among dozens of heads of state, which can quickly balloon into hours of meandering discussions. One former senior NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described these meetings as “important but painfully dull.”
With Trump blurting out Israeli secrets to the Russian government, the Europeans should ask themselves, “Do we really need NATO as it currently exists, providing uncertain American protection and dragging us into Middle Eastern wars?” It might make more sense to recreate NATO as a strictly European alliance, one that negotiates directly with Russia. After all, the core European powers are no longer flat on their back as in 1949. They are wealthy, well-run democracies. France did a better job than the U.S. in protecting itself from Russian interference in their election. This might be the time for the Europeans to ditch America and create a leaner, more focused NATO.
It’s true that NATO does allow America to channel aid to smaller countries in Eastern Europe, but could easily be done by wealthy Western European nations that aren’t paying their share for NATO membership, notably Germany. Remaking NATO might seem like a radical solution, given that Trump will be around only four or eight years. But Europe doesn’t have the luxury of waiting until he leaves office, since they have to deal with pressing issues surrounding Russia and Ukraine. Moreover, even with a new president, the U.S. has shown that it’s willing to elect an erratic figure like Trump, and could do so again. A question mark will always hover over America’s reliability.
NATO was born at a moment of crisis, in the early days of the Cold War. But the world is now facing a very different crisis, with not only Russia but also the U.S. acting as destabilizing forces. The best response to this crisis is to take Trump both literally and seriously, and recognize that NATO as it exists is obsolete indeed.