Trump's NATO threat reflects a wider shift on America's place in the world

The old consensus that endured even in the initial years after the end of the Cold War has frayed under the weight of globalisation, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession of 2008-09 and Trump's relentless assault on international institutions and agreements.
Last Updated 15 February 2024, 07:05 IST

Washington: When former President Donald Trump told a campaign rally in South Carolina last weekend that he would encourage Russia to attack NATO allies who "didn't pay," there were gasps of shock in Washington, London, Paris, Tokyo and elsewhere around the world.

But not in South Carolina. At least not in the room that day. The crowd of Trump supporters decked out in "Make America Great Again" T-shirts and baseball caps reacted to the notion of siding with Moscow over longtime friends of the United States with boisterous cheers and whistles. "Delinquent" allies? Forget them. Not America's problem.

The visceral rejection of the US-led security architecture constructed in the years after World War II serves as a reminder of how much the notion of US leadership in the world has shifted in recent years. Alliances that were once seen as the bulwark of the Cold War are now viewed as an outdated albatross by a significant segment of the American public that Trump appeals to.

The old consensus that endured even in the initial years after the end of the Cold War has frayed under the weight of globalisation, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession of 2008-09 and Trump's relentless assault on international institutions and agreements. While polls show most Americans still support NATO and other alliances, the increasingly vocal objections in some quarters hark back to a century ago when much of America just wanted to be left alone.

"The alliance structure was built to win the Cold War and it's sort of atrophied," said Michael Beckley, a scholar of great power competition at Tufts University. "Trump was obviously very jarring when he came to office, but it was part of a long-term trend." Indeed, he added, "if you look at US history, the last 80 years I really look at as an aberration. Through most of US history, Americans thought they had a pretty good thing going here on the continent and they were largely independent economically of other countries, and that's still largely true today."

That historic tension between go-it-alone nationalism and broad-coalition internationalism has played out in stark form in the past week. Just days after his speech, Trump followed up by vowing to end all foreign aid "without the hope of a payback" if he wins his old job back, offering only loans to be reimbursed. And Speaker Mike Johnson and House Republicans refused to even consider a $95 billion security aid package for American friends in Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

Even some of the most outspoken Republican hawks in the Senate voted against the aid, most notably Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who opposed the package after speaking with Trump. Graham, who has long promoted muscular US leadership and portrayed himself as a ferocious backer of Ukraine and Israel, joined his Republican colleagues in demanding tougher action to secure the US border with Mexico even at the cost of the allies.

The spurt of neo-isolationism over internationalism will surely be the main topic of discussion at the Munich Security Conference, which opens Friday, as Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other US officials try to reassure rattled allies. In a sign of how much has changed, Graham abruptly withdrew as a leader of a congressional delegation to the conference, where he has been a faithful regular for years.

"Our allies are watching this closely," Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden's national security adviser, told reporters Wednesday as he urged passage of the security aid. "Our adversaries are watching this closely."

"There are those who say US leadership and our alliances and partnerships with countries around the world don't matter or should be torn up or walked away from," he added. "We know from history that when we don't stand up to dictators, they keep going. And the consequences of that would be severe for US national security, for our NATO allies, for others around the world."

Trump has never seen it that way. While he has been ideologically flexible on many issues over the years, one constant going back to the 1980s has been his conviction that the United States has been shafted by allies on trade, immigration and security. The times have finally caught up with his views, and he has fanned the embers of disenchantment into a full-fledged flame.

He has successfully pushed the debate away from international engagement on multiple fronts. Where both parties once favored free trade agreements and spent decades expanding them around the globe, now neither party does. Where Democrats and at least some Republicans not that long ago were open to immigration within limits, today's negotiations in Washington are all about securing the border, with no measures to legalise those here illegally.

Trump and his advisers reject the label isolationist in favor of nationalist, saying that given the changes around the world since the fall of communism, it is time to rethink American priorities for a new era. NATO and other alliances, they say, no longer represent US interests.

"The old idea of NATO's collective defense needs to be reassessed," Russell Vought, a former budget director for Trump who now serves as president of the Center for Renewing America, told The Financial Times. "We have a narrower view of our interests than Estonia would like us to have."

Every president since the end of the Cold War has come to office promising a greater focus at home after what they portrayed as too much attention abroad, although most found it hard to live up to that.

Bill Clinton defeated the international coalition-builder George H W Bush by vowing to focus "like a laser beam on the economy," but ultimately he kicked off NATO expansion into the former Soviet-dominated territory. George W. Bush succeeded Clinton by promising to curtail nation-building overseas, only to be transformed into a war president after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Barack Obama rode his opposition to the Iraq War into office and brought home most troops stationed there and in Afghanistan, yet found himself going to war in Libya to stop the slaughter of civilians and again later against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria. Even Biden, a committed internationalist, came to the White House determined to end the war in Afghanistan and abandoned decades of bipartisan free trade philosophy. But he rallied allies to counter Russia's invasion of Ukraine, reunified the NATO alliance and built a broader network of alliances in the Indo-Pacific region to counter an aggressive China.

None of those recent presidents, however, has been as hostile to alliances and international accords as Trump, who not only threatened to exit NATO but also tried unilaterally to withdraw troops from Germany and South Korea. Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact and other international institutions.

Every other recent president has complained about European allies not meeting their fair share of the defense burden -- Obama derided them as "free riders" -- but never as loudly or as menacingly as Trump, who has long suggested that he considered it a condition of whether the United States should come to their aid regardless of the Article 5 mutual defense commitment in the NATO treaty. Even many of Trump's critics agree that NATO allies need to do more, although they disagree with his approach.

Under Trump, the number of NATO members meeting the goal of spending 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on their own militaries increased to nine from six. Under Biden, the number has doubled to 18, Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, announced Wednesday -- although that probably reflects the fear of Russia since its invasion of Ukraine, a non-NATO state, more than pressure from Washington.

In the United States, the discontent with alliances can be found on both the left and the right, with liberals disenchanted over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and more willing to blame NATO expansion for Russian aggression, and conservatives more suspicious of foreigners and determined to assert what they consider US interests.

Trump's "America First" slogan mirrors that used by isolationists before World War II, a group later discredited as too sympathetic to or naive about Adolf Hitler's Nazis. Even when told the history of the slogan, Trump shrugged off the taint and embraced it as a pithy expression of his worldview.

"My gut is he's just taking the old one-third isolationist part of the U.S. public in a new direction," said Ivo H. Daalder, a former ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration. "He's mobilising a constituency that's always been against this. Some of them might be sick of the Iraq War or suffered from globalisation. There's probably an overlap in those constituencies. But the people you would have associated with anti-war and anti-globalisation pre-Trump would have been on the left. This is on the right."

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, where Daalder is chief executive, has found in polls that most Americans still support alliances but that a partisan difference has grown much wider in the Trump era.

While 80 per cent of Democrats believe the United States benefits from alliances with Europe, just 50 per cent of Republicans do, according to surveys released in October, with similar numbers for alliances in East Asia. Some 68 per cent of Democrats would support aiding NATO allies such as Lithuania, Estonia or Latvia if Russia invaded, while just 48 per cent of Republicans would.

The Republican Party itself is increasingly split between the Trump faction and the non-Trump faction, the Chicago council's polls indicate. Only 40 per cent of Trump Republicans support military aid for Ukraine, while 59 per cent of those identifying as non-Trump Republicans favor it, nearly the same as the 63 per cent level among the overall public.

"The larger story is the end of bipartisanship on a whole set of issues," Daalder said. "If you look at independents and Democrats -- very strongly pro-Ukraine, pro-aid, pro-alliances, believing that a shared leadership role is more important than a unilateral role, willingness to defend allies -- all there. Where it begins to fall is among Republicans and actually Republicans that have a very favorable view of Donald Trump."

Heather A Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a group that promotes the trans-Atlantic relationship, and a former State Department official, said the problem was that the American public had come to see only the trade-offs of alliances, not the value they bring.

"Over the last 20 years, national security leaders stopped talking about the benefit and only talked about the cost," she said. "And yet NATO has followed the American national security agenda." NATO allies backed the United States in fighting terrorism, supporting the war in Afghanistan and rallying against Chinese assertiveness.

Conley noted that anti-American forces were increasingly forging their own alignment, pointing to the convergence of interests of Russia, China, Iran and even North Korea.

"This is exactly when we need a global-alliance architecture," she said. "It is our comparative advantage. It is our strength. It is the only way we are going to be victorious. But you have to explain that very clearly and Americans have to understand the benefits."

(Published 15 February 2024, 07:05 IST)

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