As NATO leaders gathered in Brussels this week to be severely lectured by America’s mercurial president — who gets some things right about the organization, but a whole lot else wrong — it’s worth recalling what the alliance represents.
First and foremost, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the largest and most successful assemblage of allies in history, projecting strength from a single, elegant premise: that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
Created from the ashes of World War II as a way to end European wars and serve as a bulwark against a menacing Soviet Union, the original 12-member alliance worked even better than imagined.
For about seven decades, Europe prospered in relative peace. The Soviet Union collapsed. And as NATO grew — to 29 nations, with each new entrant committed to democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law — freedom flourished.
That’s not just good for Europe. It’s also good for the U.S. America no longer rushes troops overseas to die on European battlefields every generation, and the European Union is now our largest trading partner. As Defense Secretary James Mattis put it during his Senate confirmation: “If we did not have NATO today, we would need to create it.”
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Someone needs to tell that to Mattis’ boss, President Donald Trump. Despite Trump’s relentless carping about burden-sharing, the alliance has invoked its collective-defense provision just once in almost 70 years: to defend America after 9/11. NATO forces, fighting alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan, paid their commitment in blood, suffering a thousand battlefield deaths in the years since.
Bipartisan support for NATO is so strong that a Senate resolution supporting the alliance passed 97-2 on Tuesday.
None of this means the alliance is without problems. Turkey and other members have been backsliding on democracy. And Trump, correctly, questions defense spending shortfalls by some countries. This is particularly true of Germany, where troops lack necessary equipment and more of the tanks and submarines are not battle ready, despite that nation’s healthy economy.
His complaints, like President Barack Obama’s before him, motivated NATO members to increase defense spending since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. But these differences are typically handled diplomatically, behind the scenes.
Trump publicly antagonizes in a way that no U.S. president has done before. He talks like America’s running a protection racket and nations aren’t forking over payoffs. He insults Germany as “totally controlled by” and “captive” to Russia because of a natural gas pipeline deal.
“Many countries owe us a tremendous amount of money from many years back where they’re delinquent … because the United States has had to pay for them,” Trump said before television cameras in a hectoring lecture to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday.
That’s not even close to being true. Trump is loosely talking about money each nation spends on its defense budget as a percentage of its economy. NATO countries agreed to a defense spending guideline of 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024 and are stillfalling short, though an increasing number are achieving that goal.
The money isn’t paid to the United States and, in any event, it can be a misleading metric. Greece, for example, spends 2.36 percent of GDP on defense, mainly because its economy has shrunk and much of that money goes for military pensions. France, meanwhile, falls short with 1.79 percent of GDP, but invests heavily in fighting terror overseas alongside the United States.
Despite Trump’s harangue in Brussels, the NATO leaders reaffirmed efforts to defend against Russian aggression and Islamic terrorism. Yet the U.S. president’s truculent attacks on close friends risk serious damage to the greatest alliance America has ever known — to the great delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants nothing more than to weaken and splinter the West.
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