Ungrateful Allies: The United States and NATO
And if one prevails against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
The much-anticipated meeting of President Donald Trump with his NATO counterparts today and tomorrow promises to be a turning point in America’s relationship with its European and Canadian allies. Since the post-World War II era began, the United States has championed and provided the longest era of peace that Europe has experienced since the fall of Rome. This “Pax Americana” came at great cost and sacrifice to the American people and ushered in unrivaled prosperity across Europe via the NATO alliance. The overwhelming portion of burden sharing in NATO has been borne by the United States, with far too few of our prosperous allies interested in doing their part in providing for the common defense against threats rising to the east and south. President Trump is determined to right this wrong and to use his platform to urge the European and Canadian leaders to end their exploitation of American generosity.
Winston Churchill brilliantly wrote, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” This is not unlike the mixed feelings that President Trump expressed about NATO on the eve of his summit with the other 28 members of the alliance. It is not much of an exaggeration to assert that the socialist utopian societies in Europe and Canada were built upon the backs and sacrifices of the American people. While American taxpayers provided the security needed to ensure peace, many NATO members took advantage of this security umbrella to slash their own defense spending to create societies rife with government benefits. What makes this harder to swallow is that many of these same European and Canadian beneficiaries of American goodwill seldom, if ever, offer a simple thank you for the immense sacrifice that the United States has committed to keeping them safe and free. Rather, our Canadian and European friends are quick to moralize and condemn policies from Washington, DC, that they disagree with. This is exacerbated by the $92 billion goods and services trade deficit with the European Union. The president’s misgivings are understandable.
In 2016, only five of the then-28 NATO members were spending the pledged 2 percent of GDP on defense. All of the allies agreed to this, but only a handful of nations bothered to actually achieve that goal. Since President Trump took office, the number has nearly doubled (the 2018 numbers are still coming in). The impression that then-candidate Trump had on several NATO countries was evident to me in July 2016. During a meeting with senior officials in Europe, one leader asked me what needed to be done if Donald Trump won the election. I said “your nation better achieve the pledged 2 percent spending on defense if you want a voice at the table.” That nation has since reached the 2 percent threshold and indeed had a private meeting recently in the White House.
One of the greatest offenders, spending barely 1.2 percent of GDP on defense is Germany, the most economically powerful nation in Europe. President Trump is right to point out the negligence of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, who rarely misses a chance to lecture America. You know this is a problem when the president of Poland commented in 2016, “There was a time when I thought the Germans had too many tanks… now I think they have too few.”
However, there is more to money in the NATO alliance. Although the US desired to withdraw from Europe in 1945 as it did in 1919, the painful lessons of two world wars was too much, and NATO was created, as stated by its first secretary general, Lord Ismay, “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” The Soviets were indeed kept out; the Germans did not trigger a third world war, and the Americans remained active in European security.
What we often miss in this debate is that all of the NATO allies have made incredible sacrifices fighting America’s wars. It would be hard for the citizens of nations like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, or any other NATO member for that matter, to justify deploying soldiers to Afghanistan. The simple fact is that the United States was attacked on 9/11 and so invoked Article V (an attack upon one is an attack upon all), and the allies came to our aid. Of the 3,407 soldiers killed in Afghanistan during the NATO mission International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Operation Enduring Freedom, 1,136 were from our NATO allies or partner nations. This does not include the tens of thousands more who were wounded. How does one place a price tag on such a commitment? Additionally, most of the NATO nations deployed their soldiers to Iraq, which was not a NATO mission. They came, and many died, to honor their commitment to the United States in friendship and in fulfillment to the ideas that it stands for.
There is a spiritual aspect to this alliance. Ephesians 6:12 clearly states, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” When the Soviet Red Army swept across Europe in 1944–45, it brought with it one of the bloodiest epochs in the modern era. Christianity was ruthlessly suppressed and persecuted at the hands of fanatical atheists. Political opposition was crushed, and entire populations uprooted. The ability of Christians to share their faith as directed by Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20 came at a high price. Although the US-led NATO alliance prevented the spread of this poisonous and satanic ideology into Western Europe, vast segments of Central, Northern, and Eastern Europe fell under its grip for over a generation. Although I was informed about the painful suffering of the people under Soviet domain, my ideas of it were shaken at the core during a visit to Latvia in 2014. Seeing images of those tortured by the Soviets and visiting the old KGB chamber of horrors in Riga convinced me that we should do all we can to prevent a repeat of such a past for the people of the Baltics. Christians are called to defend the weak, and the NATO alliance provides such a mechanism to walk our talk. We have more than the past to guide our assessment of this. Moscow’s recent expulsion of Protestant missionaries and its ongoing war against Ukraine foretell that, without NATO, the Baltic nations and much of Eastern Europe would find themselves in a dangerous position in the shadow of a rising bear.
Yes, the allies must do their part. The president is just and right to demand that they do more to provide for their own defense. At the same time, NATO provides a mechanism to prevent the bloodshed and oppression so prevalent in European history. NATO is the most successful military alliance in history. By its leadership and commitment, the United States has provided Europe unparalleled peace and stability that created the conditions for their prosperity. But everything has changed with Putin’s reemerging Russia. Moscow’s 2007 cyberattack against Estonia, 2008 war against Georgia, 2014 annexation of Crimea and its ongoing four-year war against Ukraine are unequivocal signs that the strategic environment has changed. If Europe wants another 73 years of peace, it needs to do more to provide for its security within the NATO alliance. An alliance is about burden sharing and doing one’s part for the greater good, not taking advantage of American goodwill. It is time for all of NATO to do more on defense spending, and a simple thank you to the people of the United States of America for providing them peace and freedom wouldn’t hurt either.
Doug Mastriano, PhD, is an award-winning author and recently retired US Army colonel with more than 30 years of service, including along the Iron Curtain during the Cold War and in Iraq and Afghanistan. He served four years in NATO and deployed three times with NATO to Afghanistan.
Photo Credit: Spc. John Sandoval, a Gallup, New Mexico native, and infantryman with 1st Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, fires a M249 Squad Automatic Weapon during the first of a multi-day, multinational combined arms live fire exercise with the Battle Group Poland at Bemowo Piskie Training Area, Poland, on June 26, 2018. Battle Group Poland is a unique, multinational coalition of U.S., U.K., Croatian, and Romanian soldiers who serve with the Polish 15th Mechanized Brigade as a deterrence force in support of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. US Army photo by Spc. Hubert D. Delany III, 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.