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Trump's reported desire to leave NATO is a belated Christmas present for Putin

A U.S. departure would accomplish a 70-year-old goal of Russian strategy. The alliance may not be perfect, but it exists for a very good reason:
Image: DOnald Trump, EU, NATO
President Donald Trump leaves E.U. headquarters, on the sidelines of the NATO summit, in Brussels on May 25, 2017.Thierry Charlier / AFP - Getty Images file

The Russian Orthodox church celebrated Christmas on Jan. 7, but President Vladimir Putin received his present from America a few days late. The destruction or weakening of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been the goal of Soviet and Russian leaders since the organization's creation following World War II. New reports that President Donald Trump repeatedly discussed with advisors his conviction that the United States should leave NATO represent nothing short of a triumph for Russian national security policy — even if nothing definitive has happened (yet).

So what is Trump’s argument in favor of this bold move? And what might be the military and geopolitical impacts of such an abrupt departure by the United States? According to The New York Times, Trump’s argument appears to have at least two main components. First, he has argued that America’s European allies do not pay their fair share. And second, he seems to believe NATO as an institution has become outdated.

Reports that Trump repeatedly discussed with advisors his conviction that the United States should leave NATO is nothing short of a triumph for Russian national security policy.

This latter perspective is arguably the more concerning one, as it suggests a large hole in Trump’s knowledge of global national security. NATO may not be perfect, but it exists for a very good reason: As described in the president’s own national security strategy, NATO nations “are bound together by our shared commitment to the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.” The alliance provides the U.S. with greater strategic reach and the ability to better confront current as well as future threats.

First, let’s tackle Trump’s budgetary concerns. Prior to the July NATO summit, he claimed that the United States pays “70 to 90 percent of NATO.” While these figures have an element of truth, they require greater context. The U.S. currently spends roughly $700 billion on its defense (4 percent of GDP), and the combined spending of the other 28 NATO members is about $300 billion.

But these numbers represent respective national defense budgets. The NATO budget that all members contribute to proportionally based on their gross domestic product is $2.5 billion annually, and the U.S. (which has the largest GDP) pays $550 million, or 22 percent. Therefore, Trump’s criticism is not that countries fail to meet their stated annual requirements to the alliance but that they neglect to spend enough on their own national defense, respectively.

Trump’s critique is not exactly a novel one. Member states have long argued over defense spending, or “burden sharing.” Indeed, many American presidents have criticized alliance members for not spending sufficiently. In 2011, former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates warned NATO European members that there will be “a 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 ... to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

Such criticism was also routinely leveled publicly and privately by President Barack Obama. In 2014, the alliance agreed on a target of each country spending 2 percent of its annual GDP on defense by 2024. By 2016, only five countries had reached this goal, and Trump’s public scolding appears to have had some positive effect. In 2018, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg reported that eight countries reached 2 percent and a total of 15 would do so by 2019.

But Trump is wrong to paint this simply as a numbers game. American defense spending is based on American global commitments as opposed to the European members, and the maintenance of strategic nuclear forces that serve as a deterrent for the U.S. and its allies.

The U.S. would ostensibly save $550 million should we leave NATO, but our departure would also require the Pentagon to confront difficult realities. America would lose access to military bases throughout Europe as well as NATO facilities, ports, airfields, etc. that are vital to ongoing operations in the Middle East. Furthermore, U.S. taxpayers would either need to face the burden of spending for new facilities for forces returning from Europe or allow them to be disbanded.

The end of the American nuclear guarantee might also encourage several European countries to create or expand their nuclear forces and embolden broader global proliferation.

The president’s broader argument is that NATO is obsolete and has outlived its usefulness to the United States. Clearly, the U.S. helped found NATO out of self-interest following two disastrous world wars — not out of altruism. NATO was the instrument that ended the possibility of a future Franco-German conflict and confronted a growing Soviet threat. As President Harry Truman's Secretary of State Dean Acheson argued: “Only the United States had the power to grab hold of history and make it conform.”

But as much as Trump has tried to turn America’s focus inward, we remain at war and at risk around the world. Current and future threats also suggest that the alliance remains in America’s best interest. Trump’s own national security strategy argues that “a strong and free Europe is of vital importance to the U.S.” and that America remains “firmly committed to its European allies and partners.” It further describes future threats from China, terrorism, cyber, as well as a Russian state that has interfered in democratic processes in Europe as well as annexing territory by force in Crimea and Georgia.

The president’s argument alleging NATO obsolescence ignores the thousands of allied troops deployed around the world at this very moment. Currently, 8,000 NATO soldiers are deployed to Afghanistan alongside roughly 14,000 Americans. On Sept. 12, 2001, NATO members invoked the Article V collective security guarantee of the alliance treaty and have been in that country ever since. Over 1,000 NATO soldiers have been killed.

In addition, all NATO countries are members of the coalition confronting ISIS, with French and British commandos conducting operations in Syria as part of this effort. NATO also provides forces that help train Iraqi security forces.

Still, Trump is right that NATO must increase its efforts to confront an uncertain world. But this needs to happen with the U.S., not without it. The American president should be the alliance leader, not its loudest critic. After all, we know firsthand the dangers of Russian disinformation, propaganda and hybrid warfare.

Trump has said that "NATO is worse than NAFTA" at the G7 Summit in Canada. This is perhaps the most worrisome revelation so far. If Trump does indeed believe this, it suggests he views the entire international system created in the aftermath of World War II as outdated. Not only does this fly in the face of global reality, it occurs absent any suggested alternative strategy.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once observed that there ''is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them!'' This remains a widely bipartisan sentiment. Most Republicans and Democrats endorse the value of American allies described eloquently in former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ resignation letter.

A U.S. departure from NATO would not only accomplish a 70-year-old goal of Russian strategy but it would also likely “make America alone again.”