The Trump administration has recently been consumed by the domestic fallout from the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Facing criticism from across America and even from members of his own party, President Donald Trump must now focus on recovering from what is arguably the worst week of his presidency.
But like his predecessors, he will learn that the world will not wait. Notwithstanding the significance of the turmoil in Charlottesville, we have seen acts of terror in Barcelona, threats of war from North Korea, faltering leadership in France, and Russia will hold large-scale war games planned next month with its neighbor Belarus, which some fear could be the pretext for another Crimea-style invasion. Moreover, an America weakened at home might tempt rivals abroad.
For the past century, much of the world has turned to the United States for leadership. In 1941, Henry Luce, the publisher of Life magazine and a frequent commentator on U.S. foreign policy, coined the term “the American Century.” The term encapsulated the United States’ unprecedented economic, military, and political dominance on the world stage. Victory in World War II had cast America in that leading role, a part the country initially sought with reluctance, but later played with gusto. For generations of American statesmen, it was, to paraphrase Don Corleone, a part the country could not refuse.
Despite Washington’s great prowess, the American Century would require many non-Americans in supporting roles. One of the main instruments of support was NATO. Founded in April 1949, NATO helped to keep the Cold War cold and saved America from having to intervene in a third and perhaps apocalyptic world war. This long peace in a region that had been home to many conflicts enabled Europe to prosper under America’s benevolent leadership and legitimize U.S. dominance. According to the famous quip by Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, the goal of the organization was to “keep the Russians out, the Americas in, and the Germans down.” Few alliances have ever been so successful.
Enter Donald Trump, stage left. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump was not shy about his disdain for NATO. In an interview with The New York Times, he was asked: “If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?” Trump’s response suggested that the United States’ decision on whether to come to the aid of a NATO ally under attack would be contingent on whether it had contributed its fair monetary share to the alliance. He declared that NATO was “obsolete.” Trump also said that the other members of NATO need “to pay their fair share.”
Many politicians, pundits, and government officials were quick to denounce Trump’s words. The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Trump’s remarks were “in contradiction with what the American defence minister said in his hearing in Washington only some days ago and we have to see what will be the consequences for American policy.” Steinmeier’s French counterpart, Jean-Marc Ayrault, remarked that “the best response to the [Trump] interview … is European unity.” He added that France would oppose “a return to nationalism, and each man for himself.” And the leader of America’s closest ally, British leader Theresa May, described NATO as “the cornerstone of the West’s defence” and as part of a wider, rules-based world order that the United States and the United Kingdom had helped to build after World War II. “We must turn towards those multinational institutions like the UN and NATO that encourage international cooperation and partnership,” she said.
These remarks and many others suggest that a Trump-led America poses a grave danger to the one institution that has kept the peace in Europe since 1945.
But does Trump pose an unprecedented threat to NATO? In fact, history shows Trump is saying nothing about NATO that American officials have not been saying since the inception of the Alliance. While his public tone is different, the sentiment is not.
While Trump’s bluntness on the topic might be unprecedented, the sentiments he expressed are not new. In fact, the question of burden sharing — who pays what — has plagued the alliance since its beginning. At the outset of NATO in April 1949, the organization was more of alliance on paper than an alliance in fact.
Beyond the specific issue of burden-sharing, NATO has had a number of in-house disputes over the decades. A brief review of the historical record shows that Trump’s criticisms are similar to those American officials have made in the past.
Dwight Eisenhower had a special connection to NATO, serving as the organization’s first supreme allied commander. But once in the Oval Office, Ike did not mince words when discussing burden-sharing:
All I ever get from [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles are favorable reports, but the French are getting their asses kicked. Blackmailing bastards! Damn them! They have ten divisions bogged down in Vietnam, and every time I ask the sons of bitches to put more troops into NATO they kiss me off unless I promise to bail them out. The French have got themselves into this. They ought to get themselves out of it.
Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, was equally caustic about burden-sharing. Kennedy announced at a National Security Council meeting the European allies were not paying their fair share and living off “the fat of the land.” Like Eisenhower, Kennedy also threatened to pull U.S. forces out of Europe.
The West Germans have often felt America’s wrath since joining NATO in 1955. After he became commander in chief, Lyndon Johnson leaned hard on the Germans to force them to pay more for defense. He even gave Chancellor Ludwig Erhard the “Johnson Treatment” over what the president considered insufficient German defense spending, which led the fall of his government.
Unlike Johnson, who wanted to focus on domestic issues like the Great Society, Richard Nixon was a foreign policy president. But in 1974:
Several months prior to the enactment of Section 812, this Administration took the initiative to seek Allied cooperation in developing a solution to the financial problems arising from the stationing of U.S. forces in NATO Europe.
Such criticism of NATO has not been limited to U.S. presidents. Indeed, many other American politicians and policy makers have long been sounding the same horn.
One of Johnson’s contemporaries, Mike Mansfield, who was a U.S. senator (1953 to 1977) from Montana and the longest-serving Senate majority leader in history (1961 to 1977), was so incensed at NATO free-riding that he called for pulling large numbers of American troops out of Europe.
These criticisms extend across the ideological spectrum. In 1994, liberal Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank remarked:
There is no reason for the American taxpayers, in the face of our own substantial deficit, to continue to subsidize Germany, France, England, Norway, Belgium and other prosperous European democracies.
American complaints about NATO have continued into the 21st century. At the 2010 NATO summit, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said:
In the past, I’ve worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance: Between members who specialize in “soft” humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks, and those conducting the “hard” combat missions. Between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership — be they security guarantees or headquarters billets — but don’t want to share the risks and the costs. This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable.
Gates repeated this theme in 2011, noting,
[T]he blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources … in their own defense.
Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seconded Gates:
We all have to step up and share the burdens that we face in responding to 21st century threats. And many members are doing just that. Every country in the alliance, including of course our own, is under financial pressure. We are being asked to cut spending on national security at a time when we are living in an increasingly unpredictable world.
Clinton continued her critcisms of NATO’s allies when she ran for president. During an April 2016 Democratic debate, Clinton said:
I support our continuing involvement in NATO. And it is important to ask for our NATO allies to pay more of the cost. There is a requirement that they should be doing so, and I believe that needs to be enforced.
During the same debate, Sanders was asked to compare his stance on NATO to that of Trump’s. He responded:
So I would not be embarrassed as president of the United States to stay to our European allies, you know what, the United States of America cannot just support your economies. You got to put up your own fair share of the defense burden. Nothing wrong with that.
Sanders was also also reminded that in 1997, he said, “It is not the time to continue wasting tens of billions of dollars helping to defend Europe, let alone assuming more than our share of any cost associated with expanding NATO.”
Currently, only a handful of countries — Estonia, Greece, and Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States — meet NATO’s two percent of GDP goal. Unless more countries meet this standard, we can expect the next U.S. president to also make calls for NATO members to spend more on defense. This will certainly be the case if the world becomes increasingly less stable.
As we see, the former reality TV star is now playing the role of a lifetime. But in fact, Trump is merely reprising a role that has been played by all of his predecessors and many of their also-rans. Bashing NATO is a familiar American script. The only difference this time is that it’s being delivered by the ultimate anti-hero. His dialogue is not original; it’s just more convincing.
Michael H. Creswell is an associate professor of history at Florida State University and an adjunct professor of strategy for the U.S. Naval War College’s Fleet Seminar Program. He is the author of A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe. Victor Gavin is professor of Contemporary History at the University of Barcelona and researcher of the Center of International Historical Studies of the same university. He is the author of Europa Unida. Origenes de un malentendido consciente.