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Alliance Against Progress

NATO without tears—or Cold War hysteria

Since we’re all now well-immersed in President Trump’s latest bout of diplomacy-as-theater—the general agitprop assault on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the alleged scofflaw record of our Western allies—it’s worth revisiting the left criticism of all things NATO. And since I happen to have advanced my share of said critiques, let me supply a brief tour of the waterfront.

In the nineties when we at the Economic Policy Institute were casting around for loose nickels in the federal budget that might be devoted to non-defense public investment, one of my bright ideas was to target the U.S. share of alliance-related defense spending. That included NATO first of all, but also U.S. commitments in the Far East and Middle East.

The basic idea was that, given whatever overall level of spending you thought was necessary, support from rich countries like Japan and those in Western Europe, and up-and-coming countries like South Korea, ought to increase. One would think those countries had much more at stake in securing strong alliance partners, given their geographic locations. I also exploited some obscure earlier work I did to show how we might go about setting a fair rate for the purchase of shares in a financially reconfigured NATO. This never got further than an internal memo, but the point is still valid.

To be clear, the U.S. share of such spending remained high because the United States wanted it that way. Trump’s talk about money “owed” to the United States is just more of his idiocy: in truth, the United States, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, has always wanted to dominate its alliances.

I attended a talk by Lawrence Korb years back at the Brookings Institution. Korb was a renegade Reagan Defense Department official who has campaigned against wasteful defense spending for the past thirty years. I asked if Japan ought to increase its defense spending, and he said he was not in favor of Japan rebuilding its armed forces.

A reduced U.S. share of such spending to me suggests a reduced level of U.S. intrusiveness in foreign affairs. In other words: What’s not to like, fellow  peaceniks? A streamlined U.S. role in NATO ought to appeal to anti-interventionists of both left and right. I don’t see why we should worry about a resurgent Japan and/or Germany. Either power would likely help offset any potential disadvantages arising from the expansionist aims of China and Russia. Of course, a version of NATO featuring reduced American military commitments would also likely be better for reduced armaments all around, but that’s a separate matter from the issue of shares. The basic takeaway here is that a high U.S. share—an alliance it dominates—suggests more aggressiveness in world affairs.

In truth, the United States, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, has always wanted to dominate its alliances.

There’s another hard-to-miss legacy of the traditionally Yank-dominated world order: whatever else one makes of the Russia collusion charges, it remains abundantly clear that NATO’s interventions in the formerly socialist states of the USSR helped to bring about Putin’s electoral shenanigans in our 2016 election. Admittedly the full extent of this impact is unknowable, but the fact of interference remains. Trump Derangement Syndrome has led not a few liberals into whining about the weakening of NATO. Well, from where I sit, U.S. resources devoted to NATO were always excessive, and NATO itself has less reason for being today than it did at the dismal height of the Cold War.

After all, there used to be a liberal literature on U.S. imperial over-stretch—a robust strain of “revisionist” diplomatic history, including William Appleman Williams on the Cold War and Chalmers Johnson on the American imperial errand in Asia. So, there should be at least mixed feelings about a scaled-down NATO, even as contrary sentiments understandably gain traction in the Baltic states, as well as Ukraine and Georgia.

Of course, Trump is not just screwing up NATO, but also the entire European Union. That’s a different matter. In principle, the EU could be a boon to the economies of Europe. Instead, it looks mostly like a bankers’ tool for austerity, as the eloquent testimony of former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has shown. At the same time, of course, anti-EU narratives dovetail with the rise of numerous vicious, nationalist neofascist movements in Europe.

How to sort this out? How would I know? In general, we should not like large states like Russia, China, or the United States big-footing around in smaller ones. Respect national sovereignty, and let people in each nation work out their own problems. This objective is not necessarily served by either a bloated NATO or Trump’s cloddish retreat from alliances.

Liberal cheerleaders for NATO, motivated by justifiable hatred for all things Trump, might think back to their pacific stance when Republicans like Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes were railing about the Evil Empire, inflating defense spending, and launching dubious military campaigns in Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, and elsewhere. Remember when neocons were the bad guys?

The current neocon criticism of Trump may be illusory, after all. He is volatile enough to turn around and sabre-rattle with little provocation. After the fiasco of Pompeo’s recent trip, we may see Trump dust off his old “fire and fury” rhetoric about North Korea. It’s already official policy with Iran. Neocon prince John Bolton is in the catbird seat as White House National Security Adviser. #NeverTrump policy intellectuals could turn into #GoTrump mandarins as we slide into a new shooting war somewhere. Neocons are always itching to go to war somewhere. Will Rachel Maddow urge us to follow them?

The left’s stance on foreign policy has always been garbled in various respects. Anti-imperialism is salient with regard to the United States’ modern ambitions, but glosses over the question of competing imperialisms. Some liberals dedicated to peaceable relations with Russia overlook unfriendly Russian deeds—not least with respect to our own elections. Consistent anti-interventionism is a safe bet but lacks much of a positive vision for international relations.

We’re in for a bumpy ride. My hope is that it doesn’t shake loose leftist and liberal principles—like peace!—that sustained us in the past.